Two chiefs, one tribe: Power struggle grip's Seminole Nation in Oklahoma

Saturday, May 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEMINOLE, Okla. (AP) _ A racially charged power struggle between two Seminole Indian chiefs threatens to explode in violence and has kept a bingo hall and two casinos closed for most of the week, throwing 600 people out of work.

Both sides were ordered to disarm this week, but the divisions remain deep.

``Mothers and daughters are against each other. Fathers and sons are against each other. I have cousins across the street and they're calling me names,'' tribal member Wahilla Donkeen said.

The conflict is rooted in tribal elections held last August, when Chief Jerry Haney was voted out in favor of Ken Chambers. The federal government has refused to recognize Chambers because black tribal members were not allowed to vote.

On Tuesday, a federal judge whose jurisdiction is Indian affairs ordered Chambers to vacate the tribe's headquarters.

Chambers refused, and his supporters locked down the tribe's three gambling halls and placed them under round-the-clock armed guard. Chambers and his supporters have been holed up since Tuesday night in the tribal complex in Wewoka.

``The people are just claiming what's theirs,'' Chambers said. ``Now we will depend on unity more than ever.''

Meanwhile, Haney and his camp changed the locks on a tribal building, took it over and declared it the new headquarters of the 15,000-member Seminole Nation. They said they are waiting for Chambers' followers to give up and have no plans to remove them by force.

The Seminoles live on Indian land on the wind-swept, red-dirt prairie about 70 miles east of Oklahoma City. The three gambling halls bring in millions of dollars, adding to the importance of who is in charge.

Black Seminoles were barred from membership and elections two years ago when the tribe changed its definition of who is Seminole. The new constitution requires tribe members to be at least one-eighth Seminole, and that leaves out black Seminoles, who are descendants of slaves and are known to this day within the tribe as Freedmen.

Chambers' side says the Seminoles, not the U.S. government, decide who is a tribal member and can vote. Many members of Chambers' faction wear T-shirts that read, ``Seminole By Blood.''

``If you are not Seminole by blood, you are not a Seminole tribal member. If we can't pass that inheritance to our future, we will cease to be Seminole tribal members,'' said Jackie Warledo, a spokeswoman for Chambers' followers.

They call Haney a pawn for the U.S. Department of Interior in its attempt to control the tribe.

On Tuesday, the federal judge in the dispute ordered the Chambers supporters at the three gambling halls to disarm. But on Thursday, the standoff escalated to violence when a brawl between the two sides. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs arrested two people from Chambers' faction.

Afterward, the bureau asked the Haney side to disarm, too. Haney's followers said they have complied.

In the meantime, Haney's faction, which has been given legal control over the tribe's bank accounts, said it will try to pay the 600 employees who are out of work.