HELENA — A suspended member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council sued Wednesday to be reinstated, escalating an intra-tribal power struggle that has left a five-member faction to rule the governing body since August.
Cheryl Little Dog is one of five council members who have been suspended over the past year due to the infighting. One has been replaced, leaving five people to run the nine-member council after Chairman Willie Sharp declared an emergency on the reservation.
Little Dog's attorney, Roberta Cross Guns, said the five remaining council members have misused the emergency designation to run the council without a full body. The Blackfeet Plan of Operations defines an emergency as a situation in which action is required to "alleviate an immediate danger to life and limb," and that does not apply here, Cross Guns said.
"You don't suspend people and let them hang in the wind forever, and essentially that's what they've done with these suspensions without any sense of process whatsoever," Cross Guns said.
Tribal attorney Sandra Wells found out about the lawsuit from a reporter and did not have an immediate comment.
The majority faction headed by Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. has ruled since suspending Little Dog, Jay Wells and William Old Chief amid outcry last summer to reinstate two councilmen, including one who was indicted earlier this month on allegations he held an illegal big-game hunt.
Little Dog is suing Sharp, Shannon Augare, Forrestina Calf Boss Ribs, Earl Old Person and Roger "Sassy" Running Crane, claiming the five overstepped their constitutional powers in suspending her.
The lawsuit claims the five acted without a legal quorum present, did not expressly say what Little Dog had done wrong and did not give her a chance to defend herself. It also says there is no provision in Blackfeet law to suspend a council member, while expulsion requires the votes of all nine members.
The lawsuit seeks to reinstate Little Dog with back pay, but further intervention is needed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to force new elections or take other measures to quell the dispute, Cross Guns said.
"The Blackfeet are currently in a constitutional crisis," Cross Guns said. "What are you, the BIA, as our trustees, going to do to get us through this?"
Suspended council members twice requested BIA intervention last year, but Sharp told officials the council desired no assistance and advised the federal government to stay out of tribal affairs.
Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Donald Laverdure said in a Sept. 7 letter to Sharp that his agency would continue to monitor the reservation because of the safety concerns raised by the dispute.
Jay St. Goddard was the first council member to be suspended last March over allegedly holding an illegal big-game hunt. A federal grand jury indicted him, along with suspended councilman Jay Wells and former Fish and Game director Gayle Skunkcap Jr. earlier this month on charges they held illegal big game hunts on the reservation for country music stars and a film crew.
The three men have pleaded not guilty. Their supporters claim the charges are trumped up and an extension of the political infighting, while the five remaining members council sad in a statement that the indictments vindicated them for the turmoil that has surrounded the tribe.
Councilman Paul McEvers also was suspended in a separate action before the suspensions of Little Dog, Old Chief and Wells. The suspensions have prompted protests on the northwestern Montana reservation.
Two of the five remaining council members are also state legislators and are in Helena for the legislative session. The opening day of the session was attended by nearly two dozen Blackfeet tribal members, some of whom held signs of protest against Augare, a state senator, and Calf Boss Ribs, a representative.
If she is reinstated, Little Dog will attempt to expel Augare and Calf Boss Ribs alleged violations of the constitution, Cross Guns said.