January 18, 2017

Feds intervene in Kiowa power dispute

CARNEGIE, Okla. — The Department of Interior is sending Kiowa voters to the polls in the near future.

Citing a provision in the tribe’s constitution that allows for federal intervention in limited circumstances, Acting Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Larry Roberts issued an internal memo dated June 24, authorizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to call and conduct an election by Sept. 30.

"I am hesitant to exercise such authority," Roberts wrote. "However, the fact the Kiowa Tribe has been embroiled in a leadership dispute since 2011 and the tribal constitution provides for the department to take action, I am taking such action."

The federal government has not universally recognized a Kiowa election since December 2010. Since then, three of the eight business committee members have either resigned or simply quit showing up to meetings. Citing a carryover clause in the tribe’s constitution, the five remaining members, led by Amber Toppah, have claimed that they are a legitimate business committee and have been working out of the Kiowa Tribe’s complex.

Under the current Kiowa constitution, the tribe has a hearing board as its final arbiter, but it has not been fully staffed for an extended period, thus making it unable to intervene. Although attempts were made to conduct elections in 2011, 2012, and 2013, the tribe’s election board does not have enough members to constitute a quorum and its office at the complex has been locked for several years.

For more than four years, the BIA’s Southern Plains Regional Office recognized the Toppah-led business committee as the tribe’s official government for purposes of contract renewals.

However, in February, the Board of Indian Appeals vacated the decision to recognize the Toppah administration on the grounds that then Regional Director Dan Deerinwater overstepped his authority in doing so while an IBIA appeal was pending.

In January 2015, Deerinwater announced that his office would host a special election but those plans were put on hold soon after due to a legal challenge filed with the IBIA.