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Crow chairman

Crow Chairman Alvin "A.J." Not Afraid Jr. speaks at a meeting.

A federal judge in Billings has ordered First Interstate Bank to release more than $2.4 million of the Crow Tribe’s government funds after it temporarily froze the accounts due to an ongoing dispute over the tribe’s leadership.

In an order signed Friday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters granted a temporary restraining order requested by Crow Chairman Alvin “A.J.” Not Afraid against the Billings-based bank.

Not Afraid has faced calls for his resignation by a competing faction of tribal officials, led by Vice Chairman Carlson “Duke” Goes Ahead, who maintain a disputed recall election last month effectively removed Not Afraid from office, allowing Goes Ahead to assume the tribe's top elected position.

First Interstate froze the tribe’s bank accounts last week, citing in court documents the bank’s inability to “determine who are the authorized signers on the accounts holding the tribal funds” amid competing claims from the two factions.

The bank on Feb. 1 filed an “interpleader” request, asking the federal court to temporarily take custody of the tribe’s money until it can determine who now leads the tribe.

In her order, Watters sided with Not Afraid’s arguments that the tribe’s roughly 14,000 enrolled members could face “serious harms that have and will continue to occur so long as the accounts remain frozen.

“The most important of these concerns is Montana’s February weather, which presents a risk of bodily injury or death without heat, electricity, food, water and medical transport,” Watters wrote. “Not Afraid swears under oath that members of the tribe are without these essential services unless the tribe has access to the accounts. The court holds irreparable harm is serious and likely.”

Watters took note of a restraining order issued in Crow Tribal Court that specified that Goes Ahead “will not assume or occupy (Not Afraid’s) position, title or duty, and/or financial signature authority.” The restraining order, issued on the eve of the Jan. 18 election, was extended last week. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Feb. 12 in tribal court.

The tribal court judge in that case, Elishah Reevis, has also issued a bench warrant for Goes Ahead's arrest, after he failed to appear for a hearing last month.

Goes Ahead did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon. A spokeswoman for First Interstate also did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

A spokesman for Not Afraid said he could not immediately provide a comment on the judge's order.

Watters has scheduled a hearing on the temporary injunction for next week.

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The judge's order follows an at times violent struggle by the competing factions on the Crow Indian Reservation during the past month. While Not Afraid and his supporters argue that the tribal court's restraining order effectively nullified the recall election, Goes Ahead has said he was not served with the restraining order prior to the election, rendering it moot.

The Crow Legislative Branch has backed Goes Ahead and formally recognized him as chairman the week after the vote.

The competing groups then began wrestling for control of the tribe’s financial accounts at First Interstate. According to court documents filed by the bank, First Interstate initially suspended the accounts and associated credit cards after Goes Ahead and the leader of the tribe’s legislature, Speaker Frank White Clay, emailed bank officials to assert that a change in leadership had taken place.

The bank later reversed course, however, after Not Afraid responded by threatening legal action unless the bank reopened his administration’s access to the funds.

After an attorney for the legislative branch responded by also threatening legal action, First Interstate again suspended the accounts and filed its interpleader complaint, asking the federal court to make a determination in the dispute.

“The conflicting claims and demands upon the tribal funds subject First Interstate to the risk of multiple lawsuits and liabilities,” the bank wrote in its Feb. 1 filing. “First Interstate is unable to determine who are the authorized signers on the accounts holding the tribal funds.”

The combined accounts contained more than $2.4 million, according to court documents filed by First Interstate.

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Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.