The Shinnecock Indian Nation held a historic and controversial election on Tuesday night, overhauling the makeup of its leadership for the first time since the late 1700s, and electing two women as leaders for the first time in its history.
Nichol Banks and Lucille Bosley will become the first women to serve in a leadership role in the tribe’s centuries-old history after being elected, along with five men, to the newly formed Trustees Council.
The new leadership council will be made up of two tribal elders, Eugene Cuffee II and Ms. Bosley, who are required to be at least 55 years old. Ms. Bosley beat out Michelle Johnson for the female, or “Sunksqua,” seat. Mr. Cuffee was the sole male on the ballot for the “Sachem” seat. He received just 38 votes, according to witnesses, even though 165 tribe members voted on Tuesday night.
The five regular trustees on the new council will be Ms. Banks, Daniel Collins Sr., Bryan Polite, D. Taobi Silva and Bradden Smith. Each member of the Trustees Council will serve a two-year term. Future elections for the Trustees Council will be held on the first Tuesday in April going forward.
Mr. Collins, Mr. Silva and Mr. Smith will go into the record books as the last Tribal Trustees, the three-member panel that had been the tribe’s official leadership body since a Colonial-era democratic election system was adopted in 1792. Tribal Trustees had served one-year terms and were elected in annual tribal elections each April.
“On February 26th, 2013, the Nation took a huge step forward when we voted on and approved a Constitution,” a message to the tribe on a tribal website reads. “Since then, Tribal leadership has been working on implementing the Constitution. The Nation has since passed an amended Election Ordinance, Tribal Council has appointed an Election Committee, and on November 2nd, 2013, the Nation voted ‘yes’ on the Council of Trustees Procedure Code and the Legislative Procedure Code. All actions are vital to the transitional period that the Nation has been operating under, and will pave the way for the first Council of Trustees Election.”
The new Constitution laid out the new leadership format, as well as a number of other sweeping overhauls of tribal practices.
The Constitution and the changes to the leadership format come in the wake of more than a year of heated—and sometimes violent—unrest within the tribe over decisions made by members of the Tribal Trustees and members of the tribal Gaming Authority in its efforts to develop a casino in partnership with a Detroit-based, non-Indian developer, Gateway Casino Resorts. One of the Gaming Authority members, Donna Collins Smith, was a candidate for the Trustees Council on Tuesday night.
In May, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the Gaming Authority’s offices and the home of another member, Karen Hunter, and seized computers and documents. In October, the trailer that housed those offices was destroyed in a fire that investigators said was intentionally set.
Tuesday’s elections, like most events on the reservation in the last 18 months, did not come without some internal conflict. A meet-the-candidates gathering last week was marred by arguments and at least one fistfight, witnesses said.
Just 165 tribe members voted on Tuesday night, out of 383 eligible voting members—a sign, critics within the tribe say, of dissatisfaction with the vote and the new Constitution itself. A group of tribe members objected to the scheduling of the vote and the format by which candidates were selected.
In a letter to the tribe this week—provided to The Press by a tribe member—two members of the existing Tribal Council, an advisory panel that also could be phased out, outlined a number of technical and procedural conflicts they identified in the scheduling and holding of the election, including the exclusion by the appointed committee that organized and oversaw the elections of former Tribal Trustees Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright.
“The 2013-2014 Election Committee excluded Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright from being candidates in the Council of Trustees election without an explanation,” the letter challenges.
The ouster of Mr. Wright and Mr. Gumbs, who had led the tribe’s casino push for more than a decade, from the board last year was characterized by some members of the tribe as a coup by those seeking to silence questions about the contracts other trustees and the Gaming Authority had drafted with the Detroit-based casino developer. The removal from office of Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright, by a tribal vote, was widely disputed and sparked internal turmoil that still swirls.
Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright were barred from submitting candidates’ petitions for the new Trustees Council vote by the election committee, citing a clause in the new Constitution that specifically bans any trustee who had been removed from office from being eligible as a candidate in the future.
In the letter this week, the Tribal Council members said that the validity of Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Randall’s removal from office has never been settled and that the election committee did not have the authority to decide to exclude them. Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright were allowed to be candidates for Tribal Trustees last April and lost to Mr. Smith, Mr. Silva and Mr. Collins.
“Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright were never found guilty of any wrongdoing and thus continue to maintain all of their rights as tribal citizens, including the right to be a candidate in the any tribal contest,” the letter states.
The adoption of the Constitution itself was the focus of dispute as well. The February 26 vote was held less than a week after the final draft of the Constitution was made public to tribe members and with no tribal meetings at which its tenets could be discussed or changed by virtue of public opinion. The vote was also scheduled by order of “interim Trustees,” as the three men appointed unilaterally by former Tribal Trustees Chairman Randy King, following the removal from office of Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright, were known.
In their letter, the Tribal Council members said that the vote should be considered invalid and that the Constitution was never ratified by elected Tribal Trustees. They noted that a petition rejecting the validity of the Constitutional vote was signed by 150 tribe members.