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Mankiller: Cherokee Are In Crisis
"Former Longtime Chief Says She Had To Speak Out"

by Donna Hales,
Muskogee Daily Phoenix Staff Writer
March 22, 1997

Copyright © 1997 Muskogee Phoenix
All Rights Reserved

TULSA - The Cherokee chief;s efforts to impeach justices of the tribe's highest court is an outrageous defiance of tribal law, a former chief said Friday.

"I cannot believe he is serious," said Wilma Mankiller, who led the tribe for 10 years before deciding not to run for re-election last year.

Mankiller, speaking at a news conference, said the Cherokee Nation is in a "genuine crisis."

Principal Chief Joe Byrd Thursday said he intended to ignore orders of the court that he considers "illegal."

"He could certainly do that if he were Fidel Castro or the current leader of Nigeria, but it can't be done here," Mankiller said. "For the leader Cherokee Nation to make such a statement would create a crisis-a breakdown in the system of the Cherokee government."

Decades of progress and work are being jeopardized, the longtime Cherokee leader said.

And the talk of impeaching two members of the tribunal "is nonsense that just has to stop," Mankiller said.

Byrd called in a news conference to respond to Mankiller's statements said the tribunal had overstepped its bounds. He said he would follow their "legal" orders but not their "illegal" orders, adding he could read the Cherokee Constitution and determine which orders were legal.

"But aren't you overstepping your bounds by interpreting the constitution," a reporter asked.

"I don't think I am interpreting the constitution," Byrd said.

Byrd is at odds with the Judicial Appeals Tribunal and the Cherokee Nation marshal Service over a search warrant the chief justice issued and the Marshal service executed on Feb.25 at the tribal complex.

Marshals seized copies of documents relating to possible misappropriation of funds in particular payments to outside attorneys from federal program funds and documents of how a tribal law clerk is being paid while on loan since July to the Democratic National Committee.

Court records show one outside attorney, Byrd's brother-in-law, Terry Barker of Tulsa, heads a law firm that has received more than $1 million from the tribe or its entities.

On Feb.25, Byrd sued tribunal Chief Justice Ralph Keen for issuing the warrant to search tribal offices, fired the director of the marshal service and his top assistant, and asked the court to remove the tribal prosecutor from the investigation.

Justice Dwight Birdwell immediately ruled Cherokee law allows Keen, a magistrate to issue search warrants; ordered the marshals reinstated; kept the prosecutor on the job; and told the administration to let them do their jobs until the investigation is over.

When asked if he was advocating the impeachment of Birdwell and Keen, Byrd said: "They need to take a real close look at what they're doing here."

Mankiller said a Cherokee woman called her, crying, after sitting in a meeting this week in which a plot was discussed to impeach Keen and Birdwell.

When Byrd established his own separate armed police force and insisted the two top marshals no longer were tribal employees, Mankiller said her conscience no longer would let her remain silent.

"It's sad. I am so depressed," she said.

Byrd has alleged there is a conspiracy to overthrow his administration and that Birdwell may be involved. Such conspiracy talk is irresponsible, Mankiller said.

People alleged to be in the conspiracy don't even have ongoing relationships and two voted against Birdwell's first appointment on the tribunal, she said.

Birdwell has denied any involvement to any conspiracy.

"To say any kind of conspiracy is going on is complete and utter nonsense," Mankiller said.

"There is an undercurrent of viciousness in this whole process that is unhealthy for everyone and will only create more problems unless everyone remains focused on letting the systems of government work," Mankiller said.

She urged Cherokees to get involved and the tribal council to "not succumb to pressure to intervene in the process. The best way to resolve this issue is to let the investigation proceed in a calm, professional manner. That is the only way the truth will be known."

The three branches of government provide checks and balances, she said.

One of the problems is that the issue now is being characterized as a "dispute" that needs resolution, Mankiller said.

Investigation and allegations are a routine part of public life, Mankiller said.

"I'd like to see the Cherokee Nation get back to the business of acting as an advocate for Cherokee people and giving services and creating jobs," she said. "The only way is for people to stop inflaming the situation."

She said Byrd's recent statements he will ignore the orders of the court are "extremely provocative."

The original affidavit prompting the issuance of the search warrant didn't mention Byrd's name but he has "immersed himself in this," Mankiller said.

When Byrd drafted legislation circulated to a council committee Thursday night suggesting an independent prosecutor and mediators, Mankiller said she had to speak out.

"I don't think one can appoint an investigator and call them independent," she said.

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