Cherokee Nation Split From the Start


Joe Byrd answers questions during a press conference at tribal headquarters. Chief Byrd is being investigatde for misuse of tribal funds.

World staff photo by Kelly Kerr.

Chief's Problems Begin With Mankiller's Inaugural Boycott

TAHLEQUAH -- Joe Byrd's problems as chief of the Cherokee Nation started on the day he was inaugurated.

In an interview with the Tulsa World, Byrd last week discussed the constitutional crisis in America's second largest Indian tribe and went back to the day he was sworn into office.

Since taking office in the summer of 1995, Byrd said he has had his ups and downs while charges against him and other tribal officers have cast a cloud over his administration.

The chief's main problem lies with the tribe's Judicial Affairs Tribunal, the supreme court of the Cherokee Nation.

A tribal prosecutor, Diane Blalock, has filed charges of obstruction of justice against Byrd for firing the Marshal Service in defiance of a court order.

His own marshals had used a court-approved search warrant in a Feb. 25 raid on his offices in search of evidence of allegations of misuse of tribal funds. The seizure occurred while he was out of town.

The confrontation between Byrd and his marshals touched off a series of legal challenges and political maneuvering

The tribal court filed more charges against tribe officers, the Cherokee council brought impeachment articles against the justices, the fired marshals stayed on the job without pay, at least one phone was wiretapped and there have been charges of irregularities in the housing authority and other areas.

The tribe, Byrd concedes, is split.

When he was sworn in almost two years ago, the cordial, modern-day passing of the baton from Chiefs W.W. Keeler to Ross Swimmer to Wilma Mankiller was not there for him.

Mankiller, who had been chief 10 years and had enjoyed general popularity, boycotted the inaugural. She was upset that the tribe's three-member supreme court, which she had appointed, had knocked her candidate out of the race for chief on grounds that he had once pleaded guilty to an assault charge, a plea that was erased in state court after he served a deferred sentence.

The candidate, George Bearpaw, had led Byrd in a primary election and was the favorite to win the runoff.

"One of the things that immediately split the tribe when I first took office was when Wilma Mankiller did not attend the inauguration," Byrd, 42, a former Stilwell High School counselor, said.

The question, Byrd said, was not whether "she was supporting me. The question was to show support for the Cherokee people."

Byrd said that not only did he become the leader of a divided nation, but he became the tribe's first chief not to have a tutor.

Rumors were rampant when he was elected that Byrd planned to fire the top administrators in Mankiller's administration. Before leaving, Mankiller gave them severance pay, a move the Byrd administration has challenged in the courts.

With the former chief not available for advice and his top ranks thinned of experience, Byrd said, "We got off to a very tough start at the very beginning."

Swimmer has joined Mankiller against Byrd in the current controversy.

Byrd said Swimmer "was in office when the tribe was very young. It was handed down to him from Keeler when the tribe was not much in numbers and the programs were just getting off the ground."

Swimmer took office in 1975, when the tribe adopted its modern-day constitution, and served 10 years before becoming head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. Mankiller succeeded him and served 10 years.

During Swimmer's watch, Byrd said, the tribe's court system was virtually inactive and stayed that way through much of Mankiller's administration.

Asked why he found the court to be credible two years ago but is fighting it on constitutional grounds today, Byrd said:

"In 1995," he said, "there really wasn't a question of separation of powers. They were merely quoting the constitution."

The Cherokee chief says the crisis has hurt the image of what once was one of America's most respected Indian tribes by disrupting day-to-day operations.

"It is unfortunate," he said, "that the tribe is divided in so many ways."

However, he maintains that tribal services have been delivered on a timely basis during the conflict, which is entering its 10th week.

On one side, there is support for the marshals, the prosecutor and the court. On the other there is backing for the chief, his majority on the tribal council and administrators who have made questionable decisions.

It all adds up, Byrd said, "to some confusion."

Byrd said he doesn't believe it is too late for a truce to be reached between the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the tribe.

to end up in federal court," the chief said.

However, Byrd divorced himself from a recent development that some believe might only add fuel to the fire and prolong the controversy -- the 15-member council majority's effort to bring impeachment proceedings against the supreme court jus tices when at this time it doesn't have the needed 10 votes to make it stick.

"That's the legislative branch's prerogative," Byrd said. "I don't want to interfere into their business, because people are watching very closely that there is not an overstepping of one branch to another at this point."

The court ruled that the makeup of the Cherokee Nation Enterprises board, which includes council members, is unconstitutional.

After firing the Marshal Service and installing a new security force, Byrd said he asked for BIA officers to take over law enforcement duties because "I felt like the tensions were very high, and it was escalating daily."

To fears that it might be just a first step in the BIA's taking over the troubled tribe, Byrd said he had an agreement with the BIA that its presence would be temporary.

To those who believe much of the chaos could have been avoided if Byrd had left the marshals alone after the raid and let the FBI investigate, Byrd said the court took the improper course when it reinstated the marshals.

The Marshal Service director, Pat Ragsdale, should have filed an appeal with the tribe, a procedure set up for all employees, Byrd said.

"I think right then is where we started getting a little confused about constitutional issues and the separation of powers. Whose constitutional right was it to hire and fire?"

If a truce is reached, Byrd said, Ragsdale is not negotiable.

The raid led by Ragsdale dealt in part with payments -- Byrd said about $750,000 -- made to the law firm of the chief's brother-in-law. Byrd has denied any wrongdoing.

He also denied that the tribe made a major contribution to the Democratic Party to secure him a spot as a speaker at the party's national convention last year.

Byrd said he was invited because the party wanted an American Indian to be on the platform as a speaker, and "we want our voice to be heard."

In addition to an obstruction of justice charge in the firing of the marshals, the chief does face charges in tribal court of diverting $23,000 in federal and tribal funds to pay a law clerk the tribe loaned to the Democratic National Committee.

Byrd said tribal payments to outside attorneys on behalf of the administration in the crisis are being handled by his general counsel, Rex Earl Starr.

He did not quote a fixed amount of how much money is going out, but he said the tribe has funds for attorney fees and that Starr is "monitoring those real close."

While Mankiller has said the tribal turmoil has shown that Byrd can't lead, the chief said he doesn't know at this time how the crisis has affected his rating with Cherokees as a whole.

"I think we will just have to wait and see how this all turns out," he said. "I am not saying we have been perfect here, and we have made some mistakes, but they aren't mistakes that can't be overcome."