(This story was originally published in the Navajo Times on 9/22/2016. Since then, it has been updated with more current information for NM Street Press)
ZUNI, NM – As traditional dancers, drummers and floats made their way up the main road here on Sept 4, the last day of the Zuni fair, several tribal members sat under a white tent that bore a sign that read – Recall Petition Drive in big, black letters.
Philemon Tsadiasi, Darlene Peina, Arlene Peina and Jonathon Lementino are members of a newly formed group called Unite Now A:shiwi (UNA), who initiated the recall. Members say that there are others who are spreading the word throughout the community.
UNA’s goal is to collect enough signatures from registered Zuni voters that would set the stage for a recall vote to remove the tribal administration, which includes: Gov. Val Panteah, Lt. Gov. Birdena Sanchez, and Council Members Virginia Chavez, Carleton Bowekaty, Audrey Simplicio and Eric Bobelu, who took office in Jan. 2015.
“We have 300 signatures,” said Arlene Peina, Darlene’s twin sister, who explained that besides setting up a tent on the Pueblo’s main road, the team has been going door-to-door.
She explained that based on the tribal Constitution, a recall election requires signatures from one-fourth of the tribe’s 4,135 registered voters. There are about 12,000 members total.
Those in favor, sign off on six petitions, one for each of the tribal officials named above.
Their reasons for initiating the recall are many.
UNA members claim that Panteah’s administration has repeatedly disregarded provisions of the Zuni Constitution. They say that this disregard is embedded in an overall lack of respect for the Tribe’s religious leaders.
To begin with, they point to a restraining order from the Navajo Nation family court against Panteah on behalf of a Dine’ woman who worked under Panteah’s supervision when he was police chief for the Ramah Navajo community.
It was in place from 2008 – 2013.
“The Constitution says that a person of high moral ethics and integrity needs to be in the position of Governor. It says that (the leadership) will treat their people kindly and without any harsh words or actions,” said Tsadiasi, who ran for a tribal council seat.
“When I found out about (the restraining order), I wondered, ‘How could he be sitting as a Governor?’ I was appalled!” said Peina.
“I strongly feel that the protection (restraining) order was issued without substantiation, but I have had to deal with it through the 5-year period,” argued Panteah in a letter to the Zuni people this past July 20.
But, Justin Jones, the attorney who represented the petitioner, said that Navajo Nation Judge Thomas J. Holgate’s ruling is substantiation enough.
“The court bases its opinion on the evidence presented and the likelihood that the offenses happened,” explained Jones who added that this is done to protect the petitioner from any possible harm.
Describing specific incidents, the petitioner reported to the court that she had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace by Panteah for years.
In his letter to the Zuni people, Panteah denies the allegations adding that a restraining order is not a conviction. He added that he disclosed the restraining order to the Zuni Election Board before running for Governor. He added that after an investigation, the Zuni Election Board certified him to run.
“If the Election Board was aware of the sexual harassment, why didn’t (they) postpone the election and disqualify Val Panteah?” questioned Arlene Peina, who expressed concern that the board members looked the other way.
Then, as another reason for the recall, UNA members reflected on the unceremonious ousting of Head Councilman Phillip Vicente and Councilwoman Margaret Eriacho from the council last January.
“He got rid of his competition; got rid of his two council members who stood up to him,” said Tsadiasi.
“It’s sad that these people continue to believe Margaret Eriacho and Phillip Vicente knowing that their only motive for organizing and supporting the faction (apparently referring to UNA) is because of their removal for unethical practices as council members,” stated Panteah in an email to the Times.
Tsadiasi countered that UNA’s efforts are not motivated by their support of Vicente and Eriacho, but because Panteah’s administration didn’t follow due process in removing them from the council.
“The removal of any member of the tribal council is supposed to be done by petition and approved by registered voters of the Tribe. It is spelled out in black and white in the Constitution,” said Tsadiasi.
Panteah identified his reasons for removing Eriacho and Vicente in a broadcast over KSHI-FM radio, the local radio station, last January, accusing them of breaking tribal policies.
In an interview earlier this year, Eriacho and Vicente said their removal was unjustified. (Navajo Times: March 3, 2016) and came without an opportunity to defend themselves.
“What’s at the heart of this whole thing are fraudulent actions (by the tribal administration,)” said Vicenti.
Vicente and Eriacho maintained that they were removed after questioning the establishment of an appellate court, off-site tribal property and grant programs, to name some.
“It’s retaliation,” said Eriacho, who added that Panteah often yelled at her in front of other council members and in hearing range of staff.
“I was never subjected to that kind of humiliation, threats, harassment and belittling before this. No woman deserves that kind of treatment,” she said.
UNA members also are calling for a change in leadership because they want a government that shows more respect for traditional beliefs and practices.
“They are so disrespectful,” said Darlene Peina.
In a public notice to the community on Aug 17, Panteah wrote, “We fully respect the authority of our religious leaders in all traditional and cultural matters.”
But, referring to the tribal constitution and a recent appellate court decision, he indicated that they don’t have a role in the secular government other than the ceremonial function of administering oaths of office.
Disagreeing, Darlene Peina said that it’s the Zuni religious leaders who are the very foundation of the Zuni Tribe.
“Two hundred years ago it was the Bow priests who started the Zuni government. They were the ones who put in the rules on how the Zuni government would be established,” she said.
Tsadiasi added, “Our religious leaders are supposed to be above them (the tribal administration). They should seek their advice and any wisdom they have to impart. They need to listen to our religious leaders.”
Responding, Panteah stated, “These same allegations have been addressed during the election and in our first public meeting. However, these people want to continue making it an issue. We have provided factual information to our people. However, the faction fails to accept the truth and continues to distribute defamatory and slanderous information. They are the ones causing dissention within our community.”
But, the Zuni religious leader who gave the traditional oaths of office sent out a very different message last January. The Rain Priest of the East, Gibbs Bert Othole, Demak’oha, officially took back the oaths he gave Panteah, Sanchez and the seated council members. Eriacho and Vicente say they are the only two original council delegates to still have his blessings.
At the same time the recall petition is circulating, the tribal administration held a special election on Sept 12 to fill Eriacho and Vicente’s council seats.
Wilfred Eriacho Sr. and Arlen P. Quetawki were on the ballot. From the 4,135 registered voters, Eriacho Sr. received 232 votes and Quetawki received 116.
“There will be two new members of the Tribal Council and the tribal government will continue to serve the people,” noted Panteah in his email to the Times before the election took place.
According to UNA members, the recall group has until Dec.18 to collect about 1,500 signatures, a 120-day window that started on Aug. 19.
“We will be aggressively working before the cold weather hits to get these signatures,” she said.
As the last of the dancers and floats passed by the recall petition tent, Arlene Peina added, “I feel very confident that we are going to succeed in this recall because this is for the betterment of our people and the betterment of our tribal government. It’s time for the community to start healing.”
(Editor’s note: the original story noted that 3,000 signatures were needed because the recall group didn’t know at that time the number of registered voters)