A week after the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council’s vote to oust the tribe’s president, the two branches of government remain at odds over the vote, while the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for the time being, is recognizing Jace Killsback as the top elected official on the reservation.
Killsback, elected president in 2016, insists the council’s Oct. 6 vote was illegal and violated a judgment by the Northern Cheyenne Constitutional Court the day before.
In an Oct. 10 letter to the council, Northern Cheyenne Reservation Superintendent Michael Addy said his office had yet to receive an official notice of the council’s action. The letter was provided to The Billings Gazette by the BIA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“The agency has not received any resolution, legislation or other council action to consider that would indicate that Mr. L. Jace Killsback has been removed from office,” Addy’s letter reads. “Therefore, we will continue to conduct business with his office.”
The letter goes on to note that federally funded programs for tribal members will continue to operate “as they have in the past,” and that Killsback has the authority to spend those federal funds.
On Thursday, BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the agency’s role is to “ensure they follow the proper procedures outlined in their constitution.”
“If and when the council follows their procedures outlined in their constitution, their decision regarding the matter is final and we will acknowledge their action,” Darling said in an email.
The tribe’s constitution requires the president receive “a fair opportunity to be heard in his own defense.” The day before the removal hearing, the tribe’s constitutional court ruled the complaint on which Killsback’s removal was based had failed to meet a requirement that he “be given adequate notice of the allegations against him and an opportunity to refute the allegations.”
That complaint was amended with the specific allegations and resubmitted to satisfy those requirements, according to an attorney representing Councilman Dana Eaglefeathers, who filed the complaint. Killsback, however, reiterated Thursday that he was never served with the amended complaint and believes the court’s ruling still stood when the hearing took place the next day.
“Everything they do from that point on in regards to my removal is illegal, is invalid, and they need to be held accountable for it,” Killsback said.
Councilman Benji Swifthead, who voted for Killsback’s removal, said Thursday the council currently recognizes Killsback’s vice president, Conrad Fisher as the tribe’s interim president, per the line of succession in the tribe’s constitution. He said the council has submitted copies of its resolution to the BIA.
“I believe that everybody that needed to receive it is receiving it at this time,” Headswift said. He added, “The removal is being cleared up as we speak, and I hope to get an official statement out soon.”
The BIA letter was intended to ensure that federal funds continue to be available to the tribe, Darling said in her email. But Killsback said other important tribal business is being held up by the impasse.
For one, an agreement with a private company for cutting and processing timber on the reservation is on hold, he said, and would have to be renegotiated if the Northern Cheyenne government fails to approve it by Friday. At risk are the revenues the tribe would receive from the contract, he said, as well as the jobs of more than 20 tribal members employed by the lumber company.
“We’d definitely have to go back to the drawing board. The company would see that we’re unable to do business as a business entity,” Killsback said. A land buyback agreement also needs to be approved by Friday, he added. “Those agreements involve trust assets and resources. That’s our bread and butter, really.”
The council will only recognize Fisher’s signature on those agreements, however.
“That ball is absolutely in the vice chair’s realm now,” Headswift said. “There have been resolutions that were approved that haven’t been signed off on because of this, and the vice chair has that delegated authority to go and sign off on that, on any agreements that we had.”