HELENA — A power struggle that has splintered the Blackfeet Indians' governing council and divided the tribe is moving beyond the reservation's boundaries.
The intra-tribal political feud has been escalating for nearly a year, leading to the dismissal or suspension of several members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and leaving just five of its nine members to make decisions for the governing body.
The division has led to accusations of corruption by supporters of both factions and street protests outside tribal government offices in Browning.
The tumult has largely been contained to the isolated reservation in remote northwestern Montana. But this week, it spilled into the halls of the state Capitol and the federal courthouse in Great Falls with the arrest of three ex-tribal leaders accused of holding illegal big game hunts for country music stars and a film crew.
Tribal Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. said justice is now at hand with Tuesday's arraignment of dismissed tribal councilman Jay St. Goddard, suspended councilman Jay Wells and former tribal Fish and Game director Gayle Skunkcap Jr.
"We finally feel vindicated for the months of turmoil that have swirled around the Blackfeet Tribe, all caused by just a few top officials and their followers," Sharp said in a statement.
But supporters of the three men and the other suspended council members are trying to call attention to what they call abuse of power by the ruling council members. Approximately two dozen supporters were at Monday's opening of the legislative session to protest two council members who also are lawmakers, state Sen. Shannon Augare and Rep. Forrestina Calf Boss Ribs.
The protesters said they want to spread their message to the outside world and they see the legislative session as an opportunity to do so.
"It's really sad the way things are running now on our reservation," said Barbara After Buffalo, a Blackfeet elder.
After Buffalo, Kitty Bull Calf and her husband, Edward Bull Calf, held signs that said "Blackfeet Against Corruption" while standing in the Senate gallery above Augare and the 49 other senators in their opening session.
"We're trying to let the Senate people and the House people know what they're working with," Edward Bull Calf said.
Augare and Calf Boss Ribs did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday.
On Tuesday, about a dozen of the same protesters filled the entryway to the Great Falls courthouse. They had planned to support St. Goddard, Wells and Skunkcap, but were told there was not enough room for them in the conference room being used for arraignments.
The three men have been charged with six felony counts for holding big-game hunts on the reservation for a film crew and country music stars. The indictment accuses the men of illegally selling the tribe's wildlife and stealing from the tribe for the 2010 and 2011 hunts that included musicians Josh Thompson and Justin Moore, along with a film crew for the hunting show "The Sovereign Sportsman."
The three men have pleaded not guilty. U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon on Wednesday set a March 5 trial date.
The protesters say the charges are trumped-up and really an extension of the political infighting.
"I think they've been railroaded," said Leona Skunkcap, Gayle Skunkcap's mother who also raised Wells. "I know my sons, and I know they live to help the people."
The tribal council said in a statement released by its attorney that politics has nothing to do with the charges.
"The fault lies totally in the hands of these three men who operated as if they were a law unto themselves," the statement said.
St. Goddard was suspended from the council in March over the hunts, then impeached in June after tribal officials said he failed to show up for a hearing. St. Goddard said in a Sept. 8 video posted on YouTube that he was illegally impeached for speaking out against corruption.
"One of the reasons they removed me is probably just because they don't like me because I spoke up a lot against things they were trying to do," he said in the video.
The council appointed Roger "Sassy" Running Crane to replace him in July and appointed Sharp as chairman over the protests of St. Goddard's supporters.
The next month, four council members led by tribal secretary Cheryl Little Dog, and including Wells, tried to wrest leadership of the council from Sharp and reinstate St. Goddard. But the coup failed, and Sharp, Calf Boss Ribs, Augare, Running Crane and Earl Old Person were recognized as the council's leaders by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to the Glacier News, the Browning newspaper.
The five-member ruling faction suspended the four other members: Little Dog, Wells, Paul McEvers and William Old Chief. The remaining council members continued to operate after invoking emergency powers.
Protests erupted on the reservation, and the tribe requested additional security officers from neighboring reservations. The four suspended council members twice requested BIA intervention, but BIA officials at first could not get Sharp's office to respond to calls, and then the chairman told officials the council desired no assistance.
Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Donald Laverdure said in a Sept. 7 letter to Sharp he was concerned about the Blackfeet's governmental operations and that his agency would continue to monitor the reservation because of the safety concerns raised by the dispute.