NIXON, Nev. - Though it was not a courtroom, a Nevada tribal council
meeting had all of the drama of a Perry Mason episode.
After she spent most of the evening standing at a podium facing the
council, Pyramid Lake Piaute Chairwoman Bonnie Akaka-Smith finished front
and center in her more accustomed center council seat.
"Let the record show that I am back in my chair at 8:18 p.m., I am in
charge of this meeting and chairman of this tribe," said Akaka-Smith in a
level tone at the end of a very heated meeting.
At issue was a petition signed by 171 members of the tribe seeking the
removal of Smith. Though there were also allegations against tribal
attorney Wes Williams and several tribal council members, the irony of the
evening was that because of the structuring of tribal rules, the same
council members had to decide whether to take action against Akaka-Smith,
with Williams acting as their attorney.
Smith also had to retain a private attorney to represent her.
To say the meeting was raucous would be an understatement. Verbal barbs
were traded among opposing factions of the tribe during the meeting and
Vice Chairman John Jackson was forced to call order no less than a dozen
Despite catcalls for her resignation, Akaka-Smith stood resolutely with
arms folded and only rarely turned around to face her accusers.
The basic scenario of the action reads almost like a 19th century range
war. The controversy centering on Akaka-Smith was largely at the behest of
the Pyramid Lake Cooperative Cattlemen's Association (PLA) a
state-chartered independent tribal entity that represents most tribal
cattle owners. The PLA was first established in 1921 and chartered in 1939,
and thus they claim to predate the tribe's 1936 constitution.
The PLA claims that Akaka-Smith and the council has illegally seized their
cattle and sold them for profit thus violating the rights of individual
cattle owners by depriving them of their property without compensation.
The tribe, meanwhile, claimed that members of the PLA had overgrazed
sensitive range land and only sought to develop a comprehensive grazing
policy and confiscated cattle that were in violation of that policy.
"What the [tribal council] did was come up with a more coherent management
policy," said Akaka-Smith's attorney Donald Pope.
PLA members claim that they have followed that policy and said that only
one cattle owner was in violation of the grazing policy. Furthermore, the
PLA also charged that it is they and not the tribal council that has the
governing right, as a tribal entity, over the grazing rights and
allocations of the tribe. Though the PLA is also required to work
cooperatively with the council and the BIA who in turn issues the PLA their
"Further, there was no cooperative communication from the tribe to the PLA
regarding the range management plans," wrote PLA members in a statement.
The PLA also claimed the council had gone beyond a tribal grazing ordinance
by saying they were forced to tag cattle, something they claim is not part
of the tribal grazing ordinance.
Though most of the charges against Smith and the council focused on cattle
issues, the petition also accused the tribal police of using excessive
force. They claim that Akaka-Smith essentially took authority away from the
Law and Order Committee from reviewing citizen police complaints and vested
the authority in herself.
Akaka-Smith said she did not want to comment publicly on the cattle issue
or other specific charges because she wanted to "play it conservatively" in
case the PLA complaint ended up court.
However, on the issue of the removal petition, Akaka-Smith and tribal
attorneys interpreted the tribal election codes as only allowing such
petitions to be binding to specific tribal ordinances and not as a method
for removal. Tribal attorney Williams said that the tribal election code
said that such petitions are only recommendations to the tribe and not
binding grounds for removal.
Throughout the evening there was general confusion as to what measures were
needed to remove a sitting council member. One member of the general
audience pointed out that the tribe had previously removed council members
and though it was not specifically stated in the law, suggested using those
actions as a precedent for this case.
During the proceedings Smith had requested that all council members who had
signed the petition remove themselves from the meeting. Vice Chairman
Jackson, who at times seemed beleaguered with an obviously difficult legal
situation, decided to put it to a vote with the council who voted in favor
of Akaka-Smith's request.
In the end, amidst a spirited public debate on the matter, an exasperated
Jackson was forced to ask the council if they wished to take action.
Akaka-Smith asked whether anyone had documentation to back up the charges
and one council member, Clayton Servilican, conceded that no one did.
It was perhaps this point above all else that forced the council to finally
fall silent when Jackson asked if anyone would take action. After a few
tense moments of silence Akaka-Smith announced that she was still in charge
of the tribe and took the center, chairperson's seat.
"Basically, the council did not have the evidence to prove misconduct and
that was what we had to act on," explained Jackson after the meeting.
Members of the PLA disagreed.
"When you submit a petition to the council, they should accept it, and they
should have definitely taken action," said Fred Davis, a member of the PLA.
Davis also claimed the entire proceeding was unfair and said his group was
willing to take the matter first to tribal court and then to federal
appeals court if necessary. However, other members of the PLA questioned
whether they could get a fair trial claiming that Akaka-Smith's attorney
Pope was also a tribal judge.
However, Pope is a former tribal judge and is not currently serving in that
Akaka-Smith cited the outcome of the proceedings and said she was pleased
with the results.
"Let the record today stand," Akaka-Smith said.