The chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe personally suspended two councilors on Thursday morning, including an embattled state senator charged with drunken driving.
Willie Sharp Jr., council chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, took action into his own hands and suspended Browning Sen. Shannon Augare and councilor Leonard Guardipee. The tribe’s governing body, consisting of Sharp and five councilors, did not take a formal vote on the suspensions, leaving it unclear if Augare and Guardipee were legally removed from the council.
“I’m in uncharted waters,” Sharp said. “(But) I’m trying to do what’s right for the people.”
Augare did not return multiple calls from the Beacon seeking comment.
Sharp said he was able to personally suspend Augare and Guardipee because as chairman he serves as head of personnel for the tribe.
Hours after Sharp tried to suspend Augare, acting-secretary Roger “Sassy” Running Crane issued a press release saying the chairman did not have the authority to personally suspend a member, according to the Associated Press. The release also stated that the rest of the council “wholly disagree that such an action is necessary.”
Although Sharp admitted that Thursday’s suspensions were confusing, and possibly illegal, he said he was doing what the people wanted.
“The people who vote for us are our bosses,” Sharp said.
Last week, Sharp asked Augare to step down until his legal matters were sorted out. In May, the Browning Democrat was pulled over by a Glacier County sheriff’s deputy near Cut Bank. According to the officer, Augare was driving recklessly and the inside of the vehicle smelled of alcohol. Augare told the officer that he didn’t have jurisdiction and drove off. This summer, Augare was charged with misdemeanor counts of drunken driving, reckless driving and obstruction of a peace officer. A trial is set for Nov. 7.
Augare responded to Sharp’s request to step down by saying he would not leave office unless the entire council voted on the matter. Sharp said he would ask the council to formally suspend Augare.
On the morning of Oct. 17, Sharp called a special public meeting and asked that the council consider suspending Augare. About 20 people attended the public meeting, according to Sharp. Sharp said there was a debate but no vote emerged. About 10 minutes later, Augare, Guardipee and fellow councilor Running Crane abruptly walked out of the meeting. At that point, Sharp said he decided to personally suspend Augare and Guardipee. He then asked tribal security to escort the councilors out of tribal headquarters.
Guardipee was appointed in March to fill the Old Agency District seat that was left vacant last summer after Jay Wells was suspended. Sharp says Guardipee was suspended for improper conduct on a recent trip to Washington D.C.
“I find it disturbing that someone would go on a trip with tribal money but not perform his duties,” Sharp said of Guardipee.
If Augare and Guardipee are indeed officially suspended as Sharp says, that leaves the tribal council with only four remaining members, instead of the normal nine. Sharp says the council will discuss reinstating Paul McEvers, Cheryl Little Dog and Bill Old Chief in the coming weeks. All four were suspended in 2012.
Thursday’s suspension of Augare is just the latest in what has become a bizarre political saga on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. In early 2012, Jesse “Jay” St. Goddard was suspended for authorizing an illegal moose hunt. In 2013 St. Goddard pleased guilty to federal charges.
In July 2012, a month after the tribe’s biennial election, a group of newly elected councilors contested that St. Goddard’s suspension was illegal because only six of the nine tribal councilors voted on the matter. According to the Blackfeet Constitution, a council “may expel a member for cause by two-thirds or more members of the entire Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voting for expulsion.”
On Aug. 19, 2012, councilor Paul McEvers was suspended for violating Tribal Ordinance No. 67, which protects the council from threats and intimidation. The council, including Chairman Sharp, alleged that McEvers had used tribal office equipment to prepare petitions to remove some members of the council.
A week later, a group of councilors who supported McEvers voted on a resolution to suspend Sharp, Augare, Running Crane, Forrestina Calf Boss Ribs and Earl Old Person, Sr., and form a new council. None of those actions were taken and soon after, on Aug. 27, Chairman Sharp declared a state of emergency. That same day, Sharp led the council in a vote to suspend Little Dog, Old Chief and Wells. In a press release, the ruling council said the suspensions were necessary to protect the tribe and that the councilors had “grossly violated the Blackfeet Constitution and their oath of office by attempting to form a new Tribal Council.”
Since the four councilors were suspended in August 2012, Sharp has ruled with a partially vacant council. Dozens of tribal employees have been fired and protests have become common in Browning. In September of this year, seven people were arrested during an attempted government takeover in Browning.
RELATED: Boiling Point on the Blackfeet
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that Jay Wells was among the councilors who could be reinstated. That is not correct and has been changed.
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