The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs said Tuesday it will take the rare move of overseeing a general election for the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes in Tooele County.
The news has been greeted with mixed reviews in the 124-member tribe, which has been in turmoil for years, largely over how money has been spent from a lease allowing a consortium to store high-level nuclear waste on the reservation 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
On the one hand, their government has been in disarray over alleged corruption. On the other, allowing the federal government to step in means ceding some sacred, sovereign rights.
The U.S. Interior Department moved to kill the waste site earlier this month with two rulings, one that invalidated the tribe's lease with the utility companies behind the project and the other that blocked the transportation route to the site. On Friday, officials of the Utah office of the BIA sent out notices to adult members that outline plans for balloting by mail.
Kevin Worthen, dean of the J. Ruben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, called the BIA's involvement in an election of officers "unusual."
"Generally speaking," he said, "the courts and the tribes have ruled this is an internal tribal matter."
Although tribal critics of the waste site have been pushing for a new election for years, many are unhappy with the mail-in voting announced by Chester Mills, superintendent of the Uintah-Ouray Agency BIA office in Duchesne County.
"This is not how we run our government," said Mary Allen, a former vice chair of the tribal executive committee. "If he [Mills] wants to do an election, he should do it in Skull Valley, not in his office."
Margene Bullcreek, a longtime critic of disputed Goshute Chairman Leon Bear, agreed that candidates must speak directly to the people of the Skull Valley Band, according to tribal tradition.
"That's the way it's been done with the Goshutes since Day One," she said.
Bullcreek has already written to the BIA about its proposed process, and other Goshutes are expected to follow suit. Meanwhile, a number of tribal members say the BIA's mail-in balloting is not fair and will create confusion.
Rex Allen, a onetime tribal secretary, predicted there will be lawsuits over the election results. The 2001 election resulted in the three would-be executive committee members and their attorney pleading guilty to theft after they accessed tribal funds although the election was disputed.
"The question is, how far is the bureau going to step in?" he said.
Bear's status as chairman has been in question for more than five years. Since then, he has been indicted on six charges that included embezzlement. He pleaded guilty to a single charge of cheating on his federal taxes. And six attempts to have a new election have failed.
The vice chair, Bear's cousin, quit last month, complaining she had been forced to sign blank checks and was excluded from basic information about the tribe's businesses.
Bear said he supports the elections and says his fate as chairman "is up to the people." He also pledged to help any new leaders elected to the executive committee, which may find that one of its first decisions will be whether to fight the Interior Department's waste site rulings.
"It's a big job," he said of the chairmanship, "even if it is a small number of people."
Mills, the BIA superintendent, said he has been involved previously with BIA "secretarial" elections, which generally deal with changes in tribal constitutions. He said the October voting will go in two phases, culminating in a review of the ballots by workers in his office on Oct. 23.
"Our total objective," he said, "is to get a functioning tribal government in place."