LAS VEGAS – Responding to written demands by tribal members, the Las Vegas Paiute tribal council voted to terminate Police Chief Tonia Carter-Means from her position.
More than half the tribe’s members signed a petition demanding that Carter-Means be fired after she “attacked and seriously injured tribal council member Lucille Campa at her home on Aztec Cliffs Court. Protesters also alleged Carter-Means threatened council member Darren Sackett with a knife.
In court testimony it was reported that the altercation arose after the two council members refused Carter-Means’ demands to sign documents disenrolling three more members of the 42-member tribe.
Campa sought and obtained a one-year restraining order against Carter-Means, who also serves on the tribal council.
The petition characterized Carter-Means’ actions as “not only criminal, but shameful, dishonorable and conduct unbecoming of a law enforcement officer, Police Chief and Council member.”
Carter-Means could not be reached for comment and phone calls to Chairman Curtis Anderson’s office were not returned. It is unclear what actions may be taken against Carter-Means as a member of the tribal council.
A larger dispute began last summer when the seven-member tribal council voted to change enrollment requirements and then retroactively applied new requirements to long-standing members of the tribe.
The tribal constitution, passed in 1970, states “membership shall include all persons with at least 1/4-degree Paiute Indian blood whose names appear on the official 1940 census… and descendants who possess at least 1/4-degree Paiute Indian blood.”
Just prior to disenrolling almost one-fourth of the tribe in July 1999, the council passed a resolution with a new interpretation which said: “The meaning of Paiute Indian Blood has consistently meant ancestry derived from Southern Paiute Blood.” It then retroactively applied the 1999 resolution to tribal members listed on the 1940 census with “Indian blood” and removed 14 tribal members and their descendants in a two-day review of enrollment records.
BIA manual guidelines state, “if the writers of the constitution wanted to enroll only Indians of a certain tribe’s blood, they would have written it that way. If the tribe now wants to limit membership to Indian of specific tribal blood, the constitution should be amended.”
The manual notes that constitutions “may be amended to state tribal blood instead of Indian blood, or to require a minimum of blood degree or to raise the blood minimum.” They further state there is “probably no legal way to take membership away from persons who are already members and who were enrolled before the constitution was amended.”
Phoenix BIA area enrollment specialists said that while they assist tribes in the process of amending enrollment standards, they no longer exercise approval over disenrollments since the Martinez v. Santa Clara case in 1978 decided tribes have ultimate authority over membership.
More than half of the 42 tribes in the Southwest are examining enrollment requirements, they said.
Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the disenrolled by Las Vegas attorney Michael Stuhff who said the tribal council’s actions are illegal because they violate prohibitions against ex post facto laws that cannot be applied retroactively. He said they have been deprived of property rights.
Tribal members who once received as much as $6,000 per month with two additional bonuses that amounted to about $100,000 per year now get nothing. An estimated 42 enrolled members continue to receive $5,500 per month and will share in profits from a $170 million hotel-casino and golf resort in development.
The tribal council refused to comment publicly and asserted its sovereign immunity to protect it from being sued in tribal court by disenrolled tribal members.
“But sovereign immunity is now being misused as a way to abuse their relatives and to suppress tribal members’ rights,” Stuhff said.
In the wake of weekly protests at the tribal smoke shop near downtown Las Vegas, the disenrolled and other tribal members are calling on the tribal council to rescind the resolution that has bitterly divided the tribe for more than a year now.
Former chairwoman Alfreda Mitre, director of the Native American Resource Center at the University of California Santa Cruz, said in an interview that it is critical to the tribe’s future for the council to resolve the situation with fairness and respect for all tribal members.
“There’s nothing I would like more than to see the disenrolled get back into our tribe,” she said. “There has to be a way to re-enroll or adopt them back. It’s unfair, particularly for those who have participated on the tribal council and contributed so much to the tribe’s current economic status.
“The tribe has to take another look at this issue within the next few years anyway because many of our children are not eligible for enrollment.”
Mitre and others said they fear that if the situation becomes increasingly violent, federal authorities and Congress may get involved by passing new laws that could restrict tribes’ abilities to govern themselves.
“This is what sovereignty is really about – for tribes to be able find our own solutions to the mistakes we make,” Mitre said.