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Standoff at Calif. tribal office ends after sheriff steps in following skirmish; 2 injured
COARSEGOLD, Calif. (AP) ' A two-day standoff between factions of a California tribe divided on leadership and the expulsion of members has ended after a sheriff stepped in, threatening to arrest anyone who stayed at a government center where a scuffle left at least two people injured.
The rival Chukchansi Indian factions on Tuesday voluntarily left the center in Coarsegold, about 200 miles southeast of San Francisco, and agreed to stay away for 48 hours to give the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs time to intervene in the conflict, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said. Three people were taken into custody, he said.
"We're pretty much at a nonviolent standoff," Anderson said. "They are not in contact with each other. We're at an impasse."
Sheriff's deputies stepped in to break up the clash after a fight involving as many as 40 people outside the government center Tuesday in which one person was stabbed and suffered non-life threatening injuries and another suffered a head injury, Anderson said. The skirmish followed Monday's takeover of a tribal office by about 40 supporters of a group whose leaders claimed they were denied their rightful place on the tribe's governing council in the wake of a disputed December election.
Members of that group cut locks and broke into an office early Monday, the Fresno Bee (http://bit.ly/wFGI3d ) reported. Supporters of the sitting council responded Monday night by shutting off water and power to the building and hitting it with pepper spray, the newspaper said. A smoldering log was also thrown into the building and then tossed back out.
The tribe owns the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in the Sierra foothills near Yosemite National Park and has expelled dozens of members since around November, cutting them off from stipends and other benefits.
Critics allege the move is aimed at increasing the casino profits of those still in the tribe. Tribal officials dispute that, saying they are enforcing their enrollment criteria and are now in a position to verify who is eligible to claim Chukchansi ancestry.
The disenrollment debate has played into the division between the two groups claiming control of the tribal council. Supporters of the faction that occupied the tribal office said the four members who won election in December had agreed to reverse the expulsions, but that the existing council refused to recognize them.
The sitting council, meanwhile, said it had no choice but to hold off letting the new members take office after one of the four elected in December was disqualified for using an invalid tribal badge in the casino, the Bee said. The tribe's constitution says the old council has to remain in place until its replacement can be sworn in. An election for the seat won by the disqualified member is scheduled to be held in two weeks.
Morris Reid, whom the Bee identified as the leader of the replacement council involved in the occupation, issued a statement Tuesday calling on the BIA, the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder "to send federal Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officers ...and to exercise the law enforcement authority granted to the United States over Tribal lands."
But Reid objected to the sheriff moving in to end the standoff.
"This action by local non-Indian law enforcement is in excess of their authority under Federal law and is a flagrant violation of Tribal sovereignty and an affront to Tribal governments and Indian people across this country," he said. "To curtail this dangerous precedent, we are asking the Federal government to assume law enforcement authority over the Picayune Rancheria immediately."
BIA officials in California referred questions about whether federal officials intended to get involved in the California dispute to the bureau's headquarters in Washington, where a spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a call and email left after-hours Tuesday.
Anderson, who on Monday had characterized the standoff as a family squabble he was powerless to resolve unless any crimes were committed, said he also hopes federal officials will get involved.
"I honestly don't know which party is right. They had an election and they both have paperwork saying that the other is in violation," Anderson said. "Even if I could make a determination, they wouldn't buy it. I can only enforce criminal law on Indian land."