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Prairie Band Potawatomi split in effort to recall chairwoman

MAYETTA, Kan. - What started out as miscommunication over a family dispute escalated into a intra-tribal struggle with allegations of abuse of power.

The charges are leveled at Prairie Band Potawatomi Chairwoman Mamie Rupnicki. A petition, signed by 357 of the approximately 2,500 tribal members accusing Rupnicki of malfeasance, moral turpitude and nonfeasance, is before the Potawatomi Tribal Council. It asks for a recall hearing in which Rupnicki would face charges made by various tribal members.

Both sides say they want a special hearing before the tribal council, but so far none has taken place.

If there is such a hearing, charges would be leveled and Rupnicki would be allowed to answer them. This would be followed by a secret ballot by council members to remove her from office or allow her to stay on as the tribal chairwoman.

Some tribal members, who believe she wields too strong a voice in governmental issues and uses her power to get her own way, call Rupnicki's flamboyant style of leadership and tactics in office into question.

Rupnicki is fighting the recall effort. She filed for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief and a motion for a Temporary Restraining Order against members of the Tribal Election Board, in charge of validating the signatures on the petition.

Rupnicki maintains there is no policy in place that can validate the signatures on the recall petition and has requested a special meeting of the tribe's General Council to allow her to address allegations she abused her power while chairwoman.

In her motion for a temporary restraining order, filed in tribal court Aug. 15, Rupnicki contends if the election board is allowed to proceed without a validation process in place, she will suffer irreparable injury, loss or damage.

Petition backers say a policy is in place, but Rupnicki says she wants it in writing.

"They tell me how they are going to do it, but all I want is even a draft of a procedure that makes sense," Rupnicki said. She added she believes people don't understand what a declaratory judgment is. "It just asks for a clarification of a procedure. It needs to be in place, not just for me but for anytime in the future that signatures have to be validated."

Those backing the recall say they want more accountability from tribal leaders and that they believe leadership begins at home.

A family dispute triggered the recall petition. Rupnicki's son was jailed after being accused of abusing his wife. Rupnicki was accused of using her power as chairwoman to get him released from jail, getting an emergency divorce granted and removing the children from her daughter-in-law's custody.

Rupnicki flatly denies those charges. "If I am in violation of signing my son's OR (own recognizance release), then I plead guilty."

She said the divorce remains on the docket awaiting a decision by the judge. She also said that her daughter, the tribal court administrator, did not sign the documents. The position of tribal administrator is similar to that of a prosecuting attorney.

Badger Wahwasuck, spokesman for those who signed the petition, said, "There are a lot of charges out there. They (those making the charges) have asked me not to talk about them. Some of them involve minor children."

He said charges will be made public during the hearing process. "It's been happening for quite a while now. Two other times people started petitions that didn't get off the ground. They got a few signatures, 20 or 30, but a lot of people just sat back and said, 'We had an election just a few months ago. Let's just wait and see if it works out.' But so many little incidents came up that this was just the straw that broke the camel's back. Everybody just said, 'Hey this is enough. We've got to stop this'"

Wahwasuck is a cousin of Rupnicki and the closely related community on the Potawatomi Reservation is torn in half as the recall hearing draws nearer.

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"I think of her as a sister, not as a cousin," Wahwasuck said, sadly.

He said people came to him and asked for help with the recall effort. That was how he became involved. He also said the issues people are concerned with are serious and tribal members want more of a voice in their government.

Venida Chenault, chairwoman of the tribal Constitution Committee, believes that in the long run good will come because the action shows the tribe's constitution is being followed. She said she hopes the end result will be a viable constitution with checks and balances to ensure accountability within Potawatomi tribal government.

Wahwasuck said all those who signed the petition really want is a special hearing to air their charges and concerns in a public forum. He said many were afraid of repercussions from Rupnicki, such as loss of per capita payments and tribal jobs.

Rupnicki answered, saying, "That's garbage! No way they give me too much power. I can't do that."

Wahwasuck said letters written by Rupnicki's attorney to tribal members were making matters worse instead of better.

Her management style has often been described as 'shoot from the hip,' and many members say they are concerned that she isn't addressing their concerns herself.

"The lawyer is almost her sister-in-law. There have been mean letters that she has sent to the people," Wahwasuck said. He raised a question about Rupnicki's attorney not being licensed in the state of Kansas, but filing papers in tribal court.

The state Supreme Clerk of Court's office in Topeka confirmed they had no record of the attorney, but Rupnicki said her attorney is a member of the Kansas Bar Association and registered with the tribe as an attorney. Personnel at Potawatomi Tribal District Court said they weren't sure if that would affect the papers filed in the tribal court.

Defining the line between reservation rumor and documented charges has become difficult, Wahwasuck said, and he said he has been quick to tell those with complaints to only bring documented charges, that following the letter of the law in pursuing the recall effort is very important. "We don't want to get into takeovers. That would impede the progress we are seeing. I tell people not to turn this into a shouting match when it comes to the hearing, that they have to be quiet and listen to Mamie when she gets up to speak."

"No one has come into my office and said, 'Mamie, I have to talk to you about this,' Rupnicki said. "They have never come to me." She said she is waiting to see what the charges against her are and that none has been sent to her for her response.

Wahwasuck said he believes that is because many tribal people fear Rupnicki's forthright, upfront personality which frightens some tribal members. He added he personally has no problem with it.

"There is an open door policy, but that is as far as it goes," Wahwasuck said.

He says he brought ideas and plans for economic development to the tribal council, but no action has been taken and the tribe continues to depend on the casino for funding.

"There are a lot of things that are coming up, like my big complaint with the tribe is that we aren't doing anything for economic development. We're sitting here like we are going to depend on the casino money for the rest of our lives.

"This whole thing has motivated people. You know how Indian people will complain about this and that and talk to each other, but when the general council comes they won't get up and say anything? Now more and more people are talking. At the last general council meeting we had a pre-meeting. We told people if they had concerns, to tell those who aren't afraid to get up, and we will speak on their behalf."

Everyone involved wants to see the conflict within the tribe ended, but until charges are aired at the recall hearing, Rupnicki and her supporters and those supporting the petition see little hope for compromise.

Both sides have said they believe that as things stand, there is the possibility of reconciliation.