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By:  Marc Benjamin - The Fresno Bee

Law officers were on alert Tuesday night at the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians offices, where factions were in a stand-off over tribal leadership, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said.

madera-county-sheriffThere were 25 law enforcement officers at the tribe's business compound as a precaution Tuesday night in case problems arose, he said.

Officers were alerted to the possibility of violence because a group that is calling itself the new tribal council has taken over one of the buildings. The group went into the tribal building Saturday morning and has been allowed to come and go by the other group claiming to be in charge.

"I don't know how long we are going to be here," said Erica Stuart, Madera County sheriff's spokeswoman. "There will not be a repeat of last year. One way or another they are going to have to work out their differences and they have to do it peacefully."

Law officers from sheriff's departments in Madera and Fresno counties, the Madera and Fresno police departments and the California Highway Patrol were waiting along Road 417 in case any problems surfaced.

"We are trying to keep an eye on it," Anderson said Tuesday. "Both sides said there won't be any violence but that's the same thing they told us last year."

He is referring to a conflict a year ago this week between a faction run by Reggie Lewis and another group led by Morris Reid.

A standoff began after the Reid group entered a business building in the middle of the night after some of its members who were elected to the tribal council were kept from being seated. It later led to a near riot with three people injured.

This year, a faction representing members of the Wyatt and Ramirez families are demanding a change in the tribal council.

Family members presented a referendum at a tribal council meeting Thursday demanding a change. The referendum had 14 names on it -- all related to the tribe's original landholders -- representing 30% of the two families.

But the existing tribal council, led by Lewis, remains the rightful tribal council and is in control of the rest of the compound and tribal government operations, said Richard Verri, the lawyer for the Lewis group.

Verri said Tuesday the tribe's constitution allows a tribal council referendum when 30% of voting tribe members sign it.

The Wyatt and Ramirez families recently lost a court challenge filed against the federal government that aimed to make them the only members of the tribe.

In effect, Verri said, the Wyatt and Ramirez faction want to disenroll 850 tribal members.

Jerry Montana, a lawyer representing the Wyatts and Ramirezes, said the families aren't trying to take over the tribe or disenroll members.

Rather, Montana said, the families want the tribe's business programs audited to prove that money has been spent properly.


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Meeting disrupted by faction.

By Marc Benjamin - The Fresno Bee

Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 | 10:02 PM

Another power struggle has erupted at the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians after a group of the tribe's original descendants took over a business meeting Thursday night.
Now, like last year, two factions claim they are in charge of the tribal government.

Tribal chairwoman Nancy Ayala, a descendant of the Wyatt family of original tribal members, announced a new board was taking over after she was handed a referendum signed by about a dozen descendants of the original rancheria landholders that demanded the replacement of the tribal council.

She ordered vice chairman Reggie Lewis and council members Chance Alberta and Carl Bushman off the board. A fourth member had recently resigned. Two other members were previously suspended.

Then Ayala named six members from her family and the Ramirez family -- the other "lineal descendants" -- to the board.

"It was an orderly transition that followed the constitution," said Roger Salazar, who represents Ayala's group after last year serving as a spokesman for the Lewis group. "The chairwoman was given a petition and under the constitution she had to act upon it."

The tribal constitution requires that a new council be seated once a referendum is signed by 30% of the tribe's voting members. The referendum Ayala received was signed by 30% of the voting members of the tribe's lineal descendants, the "noncontested enrolled members" of the tribe, Salazar said.

But the move was unconstitutional, said Richard Verri, an Arizona lawyer who represents the Lewis group, which contends it is the rightful tribal council.

He said the tribe has 800 qualified voters and that 30% of those voters must sign a referendum to impanel a new board.

Verri said the Ramirez/Wyatt referendum had 14 signatures, which represents about 30% of the two families' voters. He called the move a "coup d'état" and an attempt to reduce the tribe to the 46 members of the two families.

Such reductions have occurred regularly in recent years. Large-scale disenrollments began a few years after the 2003 opening of the Chukchansi casino.

Before the casino, the tribe built up membership to obtain additional federal money. After records were destroyed in the 1990s, the tribe's enrollment committee decided that all members previously certified to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs were valid members.

But the tribal council then decided that all members would have to provide documentation from a checklist or be disenrolled. Over the past decade, hundreds of people have lost their tribal membership.

Thursday's tribal council takeover was short-lived. Verri said Lewis' group controls the security team, which removed Ayala's faction from the business meeting. They went to another tribal building and stayed there for several hours before leaving.

Thursday night, Lewis and his group secured the tribe's financial records and suspended Ayala from the board.

Meanwhile, Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino continues to operate normally, Verri said.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson met Friday with both groups away from the casino and business buildings. He said they promised there would be no violence -- which marked last year's dispute.

Anderson was told that both factions sent petitions to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. A call to the BIA office in Sacramento was not returned Friday.

The power struggle has been brewing for some time and picked up steam after members of a third group that won election in December 2011 were prohibited from taking over the council by Lewis' group, which included Ayala.

Then in June, members of the Ramirez family sued the federal government seeking greater recognition for their family members in the tribe. The suit was dismissed because the court determined family members lacked legal standing.

Verri said the deadline to file an appeal recently passed and that likely triggered the latest episode in the tribe's internal bickering.

"The Ramirez family didn't succeed through legal means and attempted this power play through an illegal use of force," Verri said.

Dora Jones, a member of another faction that was suspended last year, said she agrees with the Lewis group's interpretation of the constitution. She said the votes of 30% -- about 250 tribal members -- of the tribe's qualified voters should be required to pass any referendum.

Jones said the Ramirezes and Wyatts have been meeting for several weeks engineering their plans. She is a first cousin of the Wyatts but disagrees with their effort to take control of the tribe.

"They would like to do a holocaust and get rid of the whole bunch of us," Jones said. "It's because of money and greed; that's exactly what has happened to our tribe."

Gaming experts estimate that the Chukchansi casino, which opened in 2003 off Highway 41 near Coarsegold, hauls in about $9 million a month from slot machines and table games. A portion of those proceeds go to tribal members as monthly benefits. Disenrollment of tribal members means more money for the remaining members.

This week is the one-year anniversary of the takeover by Jones and her fellow deposed board members and supporters of a tribal building for more than a day. It ended with a near-riot that injured three people.