(This story originally appeared in the Navajo Times on March 3, 2016)
ALBUQUERQUE – Growing up watching her father and grandfather take on tribal leadership roles within the Zuni Pueblo government, Margaret Eriacho dreamed one day to follow in their footsteps. That day came on Dec. 31, 2014 when she was elected to the 8-member tribal council.
But, she said it wasn’t long after that, her dream started to become her worst nightmare.
Since her term began, she said that she’s been subjected to verbal and emotional abuse, charged with interfering in tribal matters, accused of violating the tribal constitution, which led to her suspension and then removal from the council on Jan. 25, without the opportunity to defend herself.
On the same day, Head Councilman Phillip Vicenti was also removed from the council based on many of the same charges thrown at Eriacho.
Charges included failure to follow policies and procedure, breaches in the code of conduct, conflict of interest and creating frustration in tribal matters, to name some.
The detailed charges that led to their removal were broadcast on KSHI-FM radio, the community public radio station. During the airtime, speaking in the Zuni language and English, Gov. Val R. Panteah, Sr., Lt. Gov. Birdena Sanchez, along with councilmembers Carlton Bowekaty, Virginia Chavez, Audrey Simplicio and Eric Bobelu who voted Eriacho and Vicenti out, explained why they had been removed.
“Every action that we have taken thus far is based on the (tribal) constitution. We are doing due diligence in following the constitution on how the government should be run,” announced one of the tribal spokespeople.
But, Eriacho and Vicenti say that the charges brought against them are trumped up in order to squelch their concerns about possible fraudulent actions.
“We were not allowed to present our side of the story,” said Vicenti, explaining he and Eriacho were not made aware of the Jan. 25 meeting, nor allowed to have equal KSHI-FM airtime.
“We were not afforded due process. To me this is unconstitutional, because you are supposed to advertise a special (tribal council) meeting, which didn’t happen,” said Vicenti.
“This is all in retaliation,” said Eriacho, explaining that she began to feel Panteah’s wrath soon after she became a seated councilwoman.
Recalling how she took initiative to address what appeared to be deficiencies in the tribal court system based on an independent review, she said that Panteah went into an angry tirade.
“This whole time he was yelling at me uncontrollably. I’ve never seen the Governor be so angry and abusive. This anger and abuse was so intense, I feared for my safety and wellbeing,” she said with deep emotion.
“I am a legally seated councilwoman and I shouldn’t have to endure this kind of abuse,” she continued.
Witness to the incident, Vicenti said, “There is harassment and intimidation in the Zuni tribal system. People are afraid to express their concerns.”
It’s not the first time that Panteah has been accused of hostility towards women in the workplace.
In 2008, the Window Rock Family Court of the Navajo Nation, placed Panteah under a restraining order on behalf of a Dine’ woman who worked for him in another tribal community. In 2009, Panteah filed a motion to dismiss the case, but Judge Holgate denied his motion.
The complainant writes, “My concentration at work was not there due to fear of him.”
“No woman should have to endure this kind of abuse. We should not have to suffer at the hand of someone who thinks he is above the law,” said Eriacho.
During a phone call with the Times, Panteah said he didn’t have any comment about the restraining order or allegations of work-place harassment in the Zuni tribal administration.
Eriacho and Vicenti say the conflict within the Zuni tribal government worsened when they started looking into what they perceived as questionable financial activities, along with complaints from community members.
“What’s at the heart of this whole thing are fraudulent actions,” said Vicenti referring first to a complaint brought forward last October by a tribal member who questioned why his case was being heard in the Zuni Appellate Court, when that court had been dissolved by tribal resolution months before.
Pulling out two resolutions dated April 29, 2015, Vicenti explained that with one, the tribal council rescinded the Zuni Appellate Court and with the other, reinstated the Southwest Intertribal Court of Appeals, (SWITCA).
“We thought what in the world is going on?” said Vicenti pointing to consultant agreements and thousands of dollars in invoices for Zuni appellate court services dated after SWITCA was put into place.
“Where is the separation of powers?” he asked, referring to provisions of the tribal constitution that set up three branches of government, executive, judicial and legislative.
Among several other concerns, Vicenti recalled another incident when he brought attention to heavy equipment and other items at an off-site tribal property near a water settlement area that didn’t appear to be on tribal property lists.
“All we are trying to be is accountable and transparent. When we tried to apply the meaning, we got thrown out,” said Vicenti.
Reference to the questionable doings related to the Zuni Appellate court were also brought up during the phone call with Panteah, which he again said he had no comment about.
Eriacho and Vicenti were also charged with inciting the community by calling an illegitimate public meeting held in the big plaza on Jan. 21.
“(They) intended to inflame the community against the tribal council and made damaging claims against the tribal administration,” announced Bowekaty, as he reeled off the long list of charges against Eriacho and Vicenti during the KSHI-FM broadcast.
But, Vicenti said that the intent was to provide information to the community, rather than to create public unrest.
He added that the tribal administration had been invited to the public meeting in the big plaza, but only he and Eriacho filled seats set aside for the Governor, Lt. Governor and councilmembers.
According to one source, the tribal administration was listening in via a cell phone connection.
In an audio recording of the meeting which ran for about 2 hours, community members voiced their disappointment about the internal governmental discord and expressed hope that the tribal leaders would work out their differences.
“This council needs to come together and sit down at the table and iron it out. We need to move forward,” one speaker stated.
After listening to community input, Gibbs Bert Othole, Demak’oha, one of the religious leaders, turned the tables on Panteah’s administration and proclaimed that those tribal leaders who hadn’t attended the community meeting are removed from their duties, instead of Eriacho and Vicenti.
Demak’oha stated in a notarized memorial, “All of these individuals, (referring to Panteah, Sanchez, Bowekaty, Chavez, Simplicio and Bobelu) do not carry the oath of office as the oaths were publicly removed in the traditional and customary way.”
“With his (the religious leader) blessings, we went into office. But, there-on, the (tribal) constitution took place. The constitution rules how we run the government, not the religious leaders,” a tribal spokesperson announced to the community over KSHI-FM.
“To ensure continuity of the Zuni Tribal Government operation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will continue to recognize the duly elected current Tribal Government for the Pueblo of Zuni,” wrote Clayton Seoutewa, the BIA superintendent for the Zuni agency in a memo on Feb. 4, which excluded naming Eriacho and Vicenti.
“This (letter) is to iterate our continued government to government relationship, and to discharge our trust obligation to the Pueblo. Currently, there are several federal actions pending,” he continued referring to contract modifications and business leases.
Responding Eriacho, said, “What is the BIA doing interfering in internal tribal matters? We were here long before the constitution and the BIA. This is against sovereignty. We have to remember how deeply rooted our customs are and how we governed ourselves traditionally.”
Promising to keep the government on track in the midst of the turmoil, Simplicio announced over KSHI-FM, “Our government is not going to stop working, even though those two are suspended (and have been subsequently removed). We are looking for great opportunities to bring into Zuni, especially for our youth.”
But, Vicenti said that tribal differences need to be resolved first, “Right now we are in crises; we are in chaos. Hopefully at some point in time, we will create change that will be beneficial for everybody.”
Still intent on fulfilling her life-long dream, Eriacho, along with Vicenti, have filed petitions for reinstatement and a lawsuit.
“All we want is justice,” added Vicenti.
According to a spokesperson on the KSHI recording, the Tribe has secured attorney Richard Hughes.