MAYETTA, Kan. - The simmering quest for a greater voice in tribal government on the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation escalated into a legal entanglement culminating in a hearing on removal of Chairwoman Mamie Rupnicki.
The recall effort by tribal members began in August following a domestic dispute involving Rupnicki's son, John, and his wife. Rupnicki's intervention has been identified by some as the catalyst that started talk of possible removal.
Those involved were quick to point out that it wasn't just the family matter that started the recall effort, though Rupnicki's involvement was considered by many to be the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back."
A removal hearing was scheduled Oct. 7 during a tribal council meeting. Officials said Rupnicki would be given an opportunity to address charges made against her. Although general council members were allowed to attend the meeting, it was closed to anyone who is not a tribal member.
Rupnicki's attorney D. Kory Pond, not an enrolled tribal member, was not allowed to attend. Pond said that means Rupnicki would have no legal representation at the hearing. Pond challenged the council on that point.
Rupnicki wasn't taking the removal effort lightly and said she sees the whole process as an interruption to the tribal government. "Nothing good ever comes out of turmoil ... the actions of a few individuals has destabilized our government and threatened the sovereignty of the Potawatomi Nation. If they are looking for notoriety, they found it."
Rupnicki's fate rested in the hands of the tribal council which was to vote to remove her or keep her in office.
Sorting fact from fiction and truth from rumor became more and more difficult as local newspapers and television stations arrived on the reservation, waiting for hours, one tribal member said, just to get some kind of a comment.
"They don't even care who they talk to, as long as someone says something," the unidentified tribal member said. "Nobody wants their name used. By the time it gets published, you can't be sure what you said and what they made up."
It appeared reporters wouldn't have to wait long as ex-wives, friends, family members, enemies, husbands, tribal members and major corporations vied to tell their version of the drama unfolding on the northeastern Kansas reservation.
Following a story in the Aug. 30 issue of Indian Country Today on the recall effort, Joann Rupnicki, an ex-daughter-in-law, said charges against Rupnicki and her involvement with the domestic abuse case weren't correct. Joann Rupnicki alleges the entire domestic abuse incident came about because of John Rupnicki's present wife and her dislike of his son, John Jr. She also said Mamie had never tried to remove her children or intimidate her.
Rupnicki's husband Joe has come to his wife's defense, saying he believes that jealousy is driving the recall effort. "They are back stabbing and jealous of what she has done ... some of those people who are doing the hollering have been caught stealing money before. Now they want to get in there and control the casino. All it is is jealousy and back stabbing. Put that in, jealousy and backstabbing.,"
Local headlines and Associated Press reports added fuel to the fire. One news story entitled "Resign or be Fired," reported that the tribal council had demanded that the chairwoman resign by Oct. 7 or the council would fire her. The report on the ultimatum was labeled false by a source close to the tribe and confirmed as being untrue by tribal secretary Steve Ortiz.
Charges that Rupnicki "Engaged in questionable negotiations with Harrah's, which operates the tribe's casino" appeared in the story and drew Harrah's Entertainment Inc. into the fracas. The charges prompted a letter from Harrah's attorney William Buffalo to the Potawatomi Tribal Council, demanding that they produce documentation on the incident.
"There was an allegation that there were improper negotiations or discussions between the tribal chairwoman and Harrah's Entertainment," said Gary Thompson, a Harrah's spokesman. "We wanted to know what those negotiations were. We have no idea what they are talking about." He said there had been no response from the Potawatomi Tribal Council.
"This could be very damaging to our reputation ... we have no idea what they are talking about. We don't get involved in tribal issues, but when it comes down to something that affects our reputation, we do want to know what the information is that they are talking about."
Sources close to the council acknowledged the letter.
Asked for an official copy of charges lodged against Rupnicki, the tribal spokesman said the council had no plans at this time to make the specifics public because names of some tribal members accompany the charges.
The council issued a press release Oct. 4 to try and "put this matter behind us and get back to running our tribal government." In the release the council noted the recent flurry of publicity had been a "poor reflection" on tribal government. The release did contain the following statement:
"On September 27, 2000, the Tribal Council approved a resolution for the removal of Mrs. Rupnicki at a meeting to be held on October 7th. The reason for the removal is misconduct reflecting on the dignity and integrity of the tribal government. The misconduct includes the acceleration of family law proceedings in a tribal court in a case involving her son, actions taken by her to improperly impede the tribal Constitution's recall procedures and to intimidate public servants from carrying out their official constitutional functions, violation of her oath to uphold the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Constitution by acting to frustrate and delay the General Council's right to cause a recall meeting, incurring unauthorized traveling expenses, walking out of the middle of a meeting with Jackson County on July 5, 1999, the constant use of profanity and the intimidate and abuse of tribal employees."
Badger Wahwasuck, spokesman for the recall effort, charges that part of the problem has been that someone at Potawatomi tribal headquarters has been leaking information to the press. Members of the tribal council confirmed there has been a leak but had not identified the source.
"They don't even get finished with a meeting and somebody has already e-mailed all the information to the Journal World," Wahwasuck said. He went on to say that whoever is doing it should be suspended or fired.
Asked about the charge involving Harrah's, Wahwasuck said that issue was misinterpreted and was not one of the actual charges against Rupnicki. It stemmed from a complaint about Rupnicki from an individual who said her son John had been hired as part of the security for the casino and that his training had been paid for by the tribe.
The tribal council confirmed that it is not alleging any wrongdoing by Harrah's Kansas Casino Corp. or other Harrah's entities.
In August, Wahwasuck expressed fears something like this could happen if accusations were made without documentation to back them up. By releasing information to the press, without disclaimers or explanations, Wahwasuck said things had become confusing for tribal members as well as those involved in the removal effort.
He said although he expects some resolution to the situation at the tribal council meeting, he didn't think Rupnicki was going to take removal lying down and expected some repercussions.
Rupnicki continued to maintain her innocence on the charges made against her.
In an Oct. 4 press release she wrote, "I've said before the charges against me are not morally or legally sustainable. A normal functioning government would not deny me the right to legal council or a fair hearing. This is a witch hunt."
A source close to the tribal council said that although Rupnicki's behavior has been a problem and has not been acceptable, it was questionable whether charges would have been brought against her had she been a man. The source said it has been very difficult to balance the good and the bad with Rupnicki, because of the good she has done for the tribe.
Many tribal members disagree, saying they see some good coming out of the upheaval and that no matter what Rupnicki has done for the tribe, her behavior has been unacceptable.
Opinions are as varied but most said they believed the Oct. 7 hearing was merely a formality and Rupnicki would be removed.
The tribal council was quick to point out that the hearing was just that, a hearing.
A majority of those interviewed said they are anxious to get the upheaval behind them, but that they believe because the tribe followed procedure and policy, it proves their government does work. They also said they can see some changes are needed in the tribal constitution.
"People can see that we have to make changes to our constitution. She has pointed that out to us. This has really opened people's eyes. Once they would pass each other on the street, now they stop to talk, really talk," Wahwasuck said.
"We have weekly potlucks now and the council members come. They talk about the senior citizens and how this tribe has this program and maybe we should try it. They talk to the people.
He said the tribal council has changed, too. "It used to be that they would leave at 5 and that would be it until the next morning. Now they are becoming involved and really talking to the people. They are really trying to be representatives of the people now. We have a very grass-roots tribal council who have become involved with what goes on here."
Potawatomi tribal secretary Steve Ortiz agreed with Wahwasuck about positive changes and said he sees people working together now with new spirit among the people.
"It's like the old reservation days now, when people worked together and talked things out. A lot of good has come from this," Wahwasuck concluded.
"History is just repeating itself," Rupnicki said. "The same thing happened to a tribe in South Dakota in the '70s."