BROWNING – Nearly two weeks after the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council splintered into two factions, both sides met with the media on Oct. 29 to convey their version of the events that have split the tribal council and shut down the government. While all nine councilors say they want to talk and move forward, it seems they can’t even agree on a location to meet and sort out their differences.
The impasse first arose in early October, when Chairman Willie Sharp asked that councilor and state Sen. Shannon Augare step down until his legal issues relating to a DUI had been sorted out. After the senator rejected the chairman’s request, Sharp personally suspended Augare and Councilor Leonard Guardipee after he had missed meetings on a trip to Washington, D.C. Following the suspensions, the council split in two; on one side is Augare, Guardipee, Chief Earl Old Person and acting-secretary Roger “Sassy” Running Crane. On the other side is Sharp and Forrestina “Frosty” Calf Boss Ribs, along with Bill Old Chief, Paul McEvers and Cheryl Little Dog, all previously suspended councilors that were recently brought back by Sharp. However, Augare contests that the three are still suspended.
A week after the split occurred, Sharp ordered that Old Chief, McEvers and Little Dog receive back pay for the year they were suspended, which totals $243,000. However, when the tribal treasury said she did not have the legal authority to issue such a payment, she was fired and the automated signature with her name that approves checks was removed from the computer. Hours after that, the other faction froze all of the tribe’s financial assets. On Oct. 25, Sharp shutdown the tribal government.
“We may not get along and we may have philosophical differences, but that’s no reason to shutdown the government,” Augare said during the Oct. 29 press conference, held at the Glacier Peaks Casino, where his faction has set up its own government offices.
But Sharp’s faction blamed the other half of the council for the shutdown.
“No one in this room shut the government down. The men up there did,” Old Chief said, gesturing out the window and across town, where the others have set up shop.
Both sides were supposed to meet on Oct. 29 at 10 a.m., but apparently there was a misunderstanding as to the location. While Sharp’s faction was sitting inside the locked down tribal headquarters, Augare and the others were waiting at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office. After realizing the mix-up, the two sides held a conference call that “degraded within five minutes,” Sharp said.
“They said ‘get your ugly faces down to this meeting now,’” Augare recalled later that day. “It shows the upward battle our group has to overcome.”
Sharp said they waited at headquarters because, according to the Blackfeet constitution, all official meetings must take place inside the tribal building. Augare disagrees, saying the meetings should take place at a neutral location.
“It was only last week that they tried to kick me out of the building,” Augare said. “They’ve changed my locks and their obnoxious protesters are distracting people trying to get to their government… Does that sound like something anyone should be subjected to? No.”
Augare, who also discussed his recent legal issues during the press conference, said his faction has just two requests; one, that any tribal employee recently suspended be brought back; and two, that he and councilor Guardipee be allowed back into tribal headquarters to do their job.
“We’re saying let’s hold off on suspensions and removals,” Augare said. “Let’s have an intelligent conversation and make intelligent decisions for the benefit of the tribal government.”
Sharp said he suspended Guardipee for two weeks because on a recent trip to Washington D.C. he had missed meetings. Guardipee said that was the case and it was because he had been drinking the night before and slept in. Augare said the councilor, who was appointed in March to replace Jay Wells, was spoken to privately about his conduct and that the internal punishment was not the business of the public.
Augare also revealed during the meeting that he had offered to step down from the tribal council six times since May 26, when he was pulled over for driving drunk and fled police. According to him, in each instance the rest of the council said it was unnecessary. When asked why he didn’t step down when Sharp asked him to recently, Augare said it was because the chairman was trying to punish him for blocking bonuses for Head Start employees, including Sharp’s wife.
“I believe it’s political retaliation,” Augare said. “If I had been asked in an honorable way to step away from my duties, because it was a distraction to the tribe, I would have done it.”
But Sharp said Augare has never once offered to resign and that he was not trying to give bonuses to Head Start employees. Sharp also shot down the idea that he was turning against Augare because of pressure and public opinion on the reservation.
“I’m not doing this for votes, I’m trying to bring our nation back together,” he said.
But Chief Old Person disagreed, saying Sharp is doing all of this because of the upcoming tribal election in June 2014.
“There is nothing in our constitution or plan of operations that gives Willie Sharp the power to do all this,” Old Person said. “We’re supposed to be working together for the people, because it’s the people who are suffering.”
Many of the tribe’s 800 employees were not working early last week because of the shutdown. Sharp said he was encouraging people to come back to their offices on Oct. 30, but it was unclear if they would get paid.
Both sides agree that it’s the tribal employees who are suffering and that reconciling differences won’t be easy.
“It’s like trying to put Jell-O back together,” Sharp said.
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