Feds offer to help in Blackfeet dispute

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HELENA — The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is offering to mediate in a dispute that has split the governing body of the Blackfeet Indian tribe into two factions, but the tribal chairman said Friday he hopes to resolve their problems internally.

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council fractured this week after Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. unilaterally suspended two members and reinstated three others who had been previously suspended. The result has been a leadership struggle between the rival factions.

Sharp said he has called a Tuesday meeting of both sides and ordered government offices closed until then. He said that move would help tribal employees avoid having to choose between conflicting orders coming from both groups who claim they are the legitimate government leaders.

He said he appreciated the BIA’s offer of assistance, but he wants to see if the factions can resolve their differences face to face.

“That is the way it should be,” Sharp said.

One side includes Roger Running Crane, Earl Old Person and the newly suspended council members, state Sen. Shannon Augare and Leonard Guardipee.

The other consists of Sharp, Vice-Chairwoman Forrestina Calf Boss Ribs and the three reinstated council members, Paul McEvers, William Old Chief and Cheryl Little Dog.

The tribe had been operating with only six of its nine members in a tumultuous year of infighting that included an attempt to overthrow Sharp. The turmoil has resulted in four people, including McEvers, Little Dog and Old Chief, being removed or suspended before this latest round and Sharp declaring an emergency to allow the body to continue operating without a full slate of members.

BIA Acting Superintendent Thedis Crowe sent Sharp a letter Wednesday saying two-thirds of the nine-member council — six members — must be present to legally conduct business.

As a result, a number of measures passed recently by Sharp or Sharp and the other members of his faction do not meet the requirements of the Blackfeet laws and constitution, Crowe wrote.

Those include resolutions suspending Augare and Guardipee.

Sharp said the measures in question are matters of internal “housekeeping” and not subject to review by the BIA.

Crowe offered to provide funding for a team of professional facilitators, mediators and tribal legal specialists to help resolve the dispute.

“I feel that mediation and resources are necessary and critical to assist the members of the tribal council to restore a functioning governing body,” Crowe said.

Crowe declined to speak to The Associated Press about the Blackfeet political turmoil on Friday, referring all questions to a BIA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., who did not return a call.

In an open letter to the people of the Blackfeet Nation on Thursday, Augare, Guardipee, Running Crane and Old Person welcomed the offer from the BIA.

“We hope and pray that our colleagues will regain their sense of professionalism and do what is right by the governing documents of our Blackfeet Nation,” the four said in the letter.

Sharp suspended Augare after the state senator rejected the chairman’s request to step down from the council while he faces drunken-driving charges. Sharp previously said he suspended Leonard Guardipee for not attending any meetings during a business trip earlier this year.

Augare, Guardipee, Running Crane and Old Person called Sharp’s actions illegal. The group says the dispute is over their opposition to bonuses that Sharp wanted to approve for certain employees of Head Start, a federally funded early-childhood development program.

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