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Spirit Lake 'power struggle' coming to Grand Forks

An appeals court has scheduled oral arguments Aug. 30 in Grand Forks on who should be recognized as chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, but ousted Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. claims in a federal lawsuit that he remains the tribe's duly electe...

Roger Yankton
Roger Yankton, the Tribal leader at Spirit Lake Nation. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

An appeals court has scheduled oral arguments Aug. 30 in Grand Forks on who should be recognized as chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, but ousted Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. claims in a federal lawsuit that he remains the tribe's duly elected leader and the appeals court has no jurisdiction.

Oral arguments in this latest stage of the turbulent and convoluted dispute are to be held at the UND School of Law, according to information provided by a court clerk to the office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. Court officials did not respond to a reporter's request for information.

But in a lawsuit filed Aug. 12 in U.S. District Court, Yankton argues that a restraining order issued against him by a Spirit Lake tribal judge was obtained improperly, prevents him from acting as chairman and amounts to an "illegal detention" that violates his civil rights.

He says the restraining order, which bars him from entering the tribal headquarters or contacting members of the council, makes him "a virtual prisoner on the reservation."

Defendants named


Yankton's lawsuit names as defendants five other members of the Tribal Council, including Leander "Russ" McDonald, who twice this summer was declared chairman in Yankton's stead as critics sought to remove Yankton from the office he was elected to early in 2012.

McDonald and other council members were not immediately available for comment.

Other named defendants are Ruth Hopkins, the newly appointed tribal judge who issued the restraining order, and Paul Gotland, a judge of the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals.

Just hours after the council voted on July 16 to rejoin the appeals court, Gotland stayed an earlier Tribal Court order that had re-instated Yankton as chairman.

'Power struggle'

In his federal court filing, Yankton argues that, in 2012, the tribe enacted a law forming its own appeals court and withdrawing from the intertribal court, based in Aberdeen, S.D. Thus the appeals court lacks authority to set aside a tribal court order.

Critics, however, have faulted Yankton for letting the tribe's association with the appeals court lapse, leaving the tribal court -- which is not a fully independent branch of tribal government -- the final arbiter of judicial disputes at Spirit Lake.

In a statement issued Monday, Yankton's attorney Vance Gillette of New Town, N.D., said the chairman's opponents, pursuing a "power struggle," have created "turmoil" in tribal government and among tribal members.


In the federal lawsuit, Yankton maintains that tribal leaders had begun hiring for the new appeals court "but have been hampered by recall petitions," including the petition that led to Yankton's removal. The petition was ruled invalid on July 16 by Patrick Lee, a special judge from South Dakota brought in to hear the case.

Yankton argues further that four council members held "an illegal meeting" the following day to block his reinstatement by rejoining the appeals court. Hours later, Molly McDonald, a former Spirit Lake Tribal Court judge, and other critics of Yankton sought and obtained the appeals court stay against Lee's ruling.

Later in July, the council -- again acting without Yankton -- appointed a new tribal judge, Ruth Hopkins, who issued the restraining orders against the embattled leader.

Tribal constitution

In a brief phone conversation Monday, Yankton said the lengthy leadership dispute has been difficult for him personally, "but it is for everybody," and he'd like to see it resolved soon and in a civil manner.

He said the restraining order "is affecting my ability to do my job."

He insists the recall vote that ousted him earlier this summer and temporarily replaced him with Russ McDonald violated tribal law and the Spirit Lake constitution, which require evidence of wrongdoing by an elected tribal official.

"They didn't prove nothing," Yankton said. "They didn't substantiate any wrongdoing."


The lengthy leadership struggle has complicated the tribe's efforts to restore trust in its child protection system, which came under fire last year with reports of children being abused and killed. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs stepped in last October to bolster and oversee the child protection system.

Call Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

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