Tribal standoff continues third day

Thursday, May 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(SEMINOLE) - A power struggle within the Seminole Nation grew more intense Thursday as two chiefs claiming control of the tribe refused to back down.

The nation's three gaming centers and three retail stores remained closed for a third day, leaving about 600 employees without work during the standoff between Chief Ken Chambers and Chief Jerry Haney.

Chambers has been acting chief since defeating Haney in an August election. But the federal government does not recognize Chambers because black members of the Seminole Nation were not allowed to vote.

Haney is in control of the tribe's bank accounts and took over a building where the general counsel meets by changing the locks when it was empty.

Chambers and his followers refuse to leave the tribal headquarters in Wewoka, staying overnight so Haney's faction cannot push them out.

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

About 150 people who support Chambers rallied at the nation's bingo hall south of Seminole on Thursday afternoon. Many came to find out when they could go back to work.

``You are going to have to take your government back,'' said Lewis Johnson, member of the general counsel. ``The power is in you.''

One person was arrested by U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs police for disturbing the peace after the rally, a sheriff's department dispatcher said.

Haney's group holed up across the street in the general counsel building, which he is calling the new headquarters for the Seminole Nation. His group remains legally armed.

``We could disperse them with a few shotgun blasts, but that's not how we want to do this,'' said Michael Haney, the new chairman of the gaming commission.

``This bothers me, this picture of Indian against Indian. It's really the Seminole Nation verses corruption.''

He said he caught some of Chambers' followers trying to steal documents and other items from the bingo hall in the middle of the night.

``I went over there and stood in their path,'' Michael Haney said.

Each faction accuses the other of allowing organized crime to take over the tribe's gaming business. Haney's group said the centers will reopen as soon as the problems are corrected and that employees will receive paychecks while the centers are closed.

Yellow caution tape surrounded the tribe's main gaming center, just off Interstate 40 in Seminole County. The center was in violation of National Indian Gaming Commission Rules and ordered to pay a daily fine for failing to conduct background checks on primary management officials and employees, Michael Haney said.

``The Indians can't control their own gaming,'' he said. ``It should be under state control.''

But Chambers' group says Jerry Haney is a pawn for the U.S. Department of Interior in its attempt to control the tribe. The Seminole Nation should decide who is a member of the tribe and who is allowed to vote in elections, said Jackie Warledo, spokeswoman for Chambers' faction.

Warledo and others wore T-shirts on Thursday that said ``Seminole By Blood.'' The nation changed its constitution two years ago to say tribal members must be at least one-eighth Seminole. That amendment excluded black Seminoles, so-called Freedmen who are descendants of slaves, from sitting on the tribe's general counsel.

``It doesn't matter what race you are,'' she said. ``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. We can't lose this.''

The Chambers group got nowhere in its legal attempts Thursday to expel Haney.

A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., denied the group's request for a temporary restraining order, said a spokesman for the Department of Interior. And judges in Muskogee federal court gave them no relief.

Judge Philip Lujan, who presides over the Code of Federal Regulations Court in Wewoka, froze the tribe's bank accounts last week and turned control of the money to Haney. The judge ordered the guards protecting the tribe's three gaming centers to disarm Tuesday.

The gaming centers were closed and locked within three hours of the ruling.