The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe has claimed jurisprudential sovereignty by establishing an internal tribal court system.
Additionally, the tribe is preparing to implement its own police and fire departments.
The business committee of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe passed a resolution on Aug. 23, establishing a tribal police department and tribal court, in order to protect the interest of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, according to Chief Paul Spicer.
“We will be working closely with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to establish our tribal police department,” Spicer said. “We have a patrol car and are just waiting to pull everything together.”
The fire station and four fire trucks have been an asset of the tribe for approximately two years, according to Spicer. However, a fire department has never been established.
“We also have a helicopter pad,” Spicer said.
While some members of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe regard the reclamation as the cornerstone of tribal sovereignty, others are disputing its validity.
On Oct.3, Spicer was the first plaintiff to file a petition in the District Court for the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe. The petition names nine tribal members, including second chief Katie Birdsong and secretary/treasurer Kay Crow Ellison.
Spicer's petition requests relief from a grievance petition filed within the Court of Indian Offenses (CFR), calling the petition “unconstitutional” and “unlawful.”
Spicer's petition also calls for an injunction against Ellison, prohibiting her from calling any special general council meetings or issuing any notices absent instruction from the chief.
Within hours of being served, defendant's Dolly Pewitt, Ellison and Sandra Kingston filed a report for criminal action against Spicer through the Miami Police Department.
The complaint states that Spicer acted without legal authority in having the paper's served and that the petition is a “sham legal process.”
According to Pewitt, the District Court in and for the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma does not have legal authority to exist.
On Oct. 5, Doug Pewitt, husband of Dolly Pewitt and a licensed attorney, asked Spicer's attorneys to withdraw the tribe's petition.
“I do not believe the Tribe has established a court system in accordance with the tribe's governing documents,” Doug Pewitt wrote in a letter to attorney Tom Osterholt of Spencer, Fane Britt & Browne. “I do not believe the tribe has been deleted from the listing of Court of Indian Offenses by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
The opponents of Spicer's petition have also expressed their concerns that the tribe's business committee has overstepped its bounds as it has defied the wishes of the general council which gathered in January and voted against funding a tribal court system and law enforcement agency.
Thomas Hayde, representing the tribe issued a brief, but clearly stated that the tribe believes the court system has been properly established and that there are no plans to withdraw the case.
In a response to News-Record inquiries, Hayde said, “the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe has completed all steps it must complete. It has passed a code of laws; it has established a courts system within that code of laws; it has sent to the regional BIA officers certified copies of the Tribal resolutions enacting the code of laws and establishing a court system. It has done these things within the constitution and laws of the Tribe.”
According to Hayde, it is now the bureau's responsibility to publish the matter in the federal register and have the Seneca-Cayuga name deleted from the Code of Federal Regulations as a tribe that utilizes the Court of Indian Offenses.
“Whether BIA does those things is truly not within the control of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe,” Hayde wrote in an Oct. 17 e-mail. “However, the Tribe is a sovereign that retains jurisdiction over its tribal lands and peoples … The tasks yet to be performed by the BIA are ministerial. The BIA cannot, by action or inaction, take jurisdiction away from the sovereign Tribe.
According to John Little, a tribal judiciary specialist with the Department of Interior, individual tribes have the legal right to abandon their relationship with CFR and reclaim their own jurisprudential sovereignty.
"The legal process of establishing a tribal court is quite simple actually," Little said. "The tribe must pass a resolution. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe has passed that resolution and established its own tribal court."
Spicer contends that the business committee members were all present on the date the resolution was passed to establish a tribal court and police department.
“If I remember correctly, the vote was four in favor, three opposed and one abstention,” Spicer said.
Attorney Carl Jones, of Vinita, has been appointed as the tribal court judge. The court clerk's office for the is located in the Miami office, according to Spicer.