Divided Chukchansi tribe holds two elections

The Fresno BeeDecember 7, 2013 

The front entrance and the water feature are seen at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold Nov. 22, 2013.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

The latest in a Chukchansi leadership standoff resulted in two elections on Saturday, with both groups claiming to be the rightful tribal council of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians in Coarsegold, which has been deeply divided since the winter of 2011.

One of Saturday's elections was deemed the "unification election" -- an attempt to join two factions: leaders of the Reggie Lewis and Morris Reid groups.

The other was led by Nancy Ayala's faction, which has maintained control of the rancheria offices in Coarsegold, along with day-to-day operations at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

Richard Verri, legal counsel for the tribe, said Lewis got the most votes in the "unification election." He will be joined on the tribal council by Chance Alberta from the Lewis group and Dixie Jackson and Reid from the Reid group.

Verri said the elction drew a "very strong showing by the tribal members," but he didn't have the vote count.

In the "unification election," ballots were sent to just over 800 adult voting members of tribe, which has about 900 members, said Verri, who has been representing the Lewis group. Ballots were also sent to the Ayala group, he said.

"This election is about keeping the membership intact," Verri said. "It's about saying, 'we have 900 members, we are all equal, there's not classes of membership.' There's not first- or second-class citizens. Once you are a citizen, you are a citizen."

Verri said only some members, who came to the tribal offices and who weren't sanctioned, were allowed to vote in the Ayala election.

David Leibowitz, spokesman for Ayala's council, said Saturday that he didn't know how many ballots were cast in their election. As of late Saturday night, he did not have election results.

"The tribe continues to move forward," Leibowitz said of the Ayala election. "The Ayala quorum continues to make the payments ... tribes are sovereign nations and they have land from which that sovereignty resides. You can't just set up a headquarters in a strip mall (in Fresno, where Lewis' group is now based) and say you run the tribe."

The rift between the Lewis and Reid groups was mended at a general council meeting in September. Members voted to lift the sanctions against Reid supporters -- which date to the occupation of the tribal offices in February, 2012, and another leadership standoff.

The new, unified group is still hoping for intervention from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help sort out the leadership feud.

The history

The most recent leadership split happened in February of this year, when a petition signed by 14 members was supported by Ayala, which claimed only 46 people were members of the tribe, Verri said.

That petition also ordered the six other tribal council members off the council, replaced with members of Ayala's family.

Several days later, the council makeup changed again to include two previously suspended tribal council members, and another unsuspended council member.

At that time, two groups formed: those led by Ayala, and those led by Lewis.

Ayala's group took control of the tribal offices, and Lewis moved his tribal office to Fresno -- what he said was an attempt to avoid another disruption of violence at the Coarsegold rancheria, like what happened in 2012.

At that time, a near-riot and stabbing occurred outside the tribal offices, after supporters of the Lewis group surrounded supporters of the Reid group. Reid supporters occupied the building in an attempt to seat four newly-elected members who were against recent disenrollments of tribal members, and were never allowed to take power at the rancheria.

A major point of contention has been the management of the tribe's money.

In October, a New York judge required the factions give all their financial information to the trustee, Wells Fargo.

Staff writer Jacob Rayburn contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-8386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or on Twitter @CarmenGeorge

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