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Dispute among Monacan Nation prompts 'fake elections,' allegations of mismanagement

FILE - The Monacan Indian Nation in Madison Heights{ } (Credit: Mia Nelson/WSET).{ }
FILE - The Monacan Indian Nation in Madison Heights (Credit: Mia Nelson/WSET).
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There’s a divide between some Monacan Indians over who is leading the new nation. The argument could soon play out in federal court in a case where some tribe members say the Chief isn't handing over federal funds that are owed to them.

"You have distinct sides. One is trying to follow our laws and federal law, and the other side is making up rules as they go,” Bobby Thompson Jr., a tribe member and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said.

“Some people aren't happy that they're not getting as big of a check as they've wanted, so they decided to create a pretend government,” Greg Werkheiser, the attorney representing the defendants, said.

Nine members of the Monacan Nation have filed a lawsuit against the Chief, Kenneth Branham, and two other people involved with the tribe.

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In the complaint, the plaintiffs say the defendants didn’t sign over federal funds that were owed to the plaintiffs. The lawsuit claims that the plaintiffs were wrongfully denied more than $55,000 collectively in health care, housing and CARES Act money:

Kenneth Branham exercised control over the said funds which were paid by the United States Government for the benefit of tribal citizens and prevented their delivery to the Plaintiffs.

Thompson Jr. said Branham did this by “disenrolling” people from the tribe, or basically, kicking them out.

"By saying that we were suspended, they were able to stop benefits,” Thompson Jr. said.

"Since they have the signatory authority on some of the accounts, they just choose not to write the checks...” Joe Sanzone, the plaintiffs’ attorney said. “The lawsuit will determine how the money has been spent, but what we know at this point is it has not been received by the tribal citizens."

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Greg Werkheiser is a founding partner of Cultural Heritage Partners and is representing the defendants. He said the plaintiffs did get their federal funds.

"What they're asking for is to be paid more than the other 2,700 or so citizens enrolled in the Monacan Indian Nation,” Werkheiser said in a phone interview. “That's just absurd and unfair and it would be illegal for the tribe to pay them."

Werkheiser has filed a motion for the court to dismiss the lawsuit for multiple reasons:

First, the Complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because the true party-in-interest is the Monacan Indian Nation, a sovereign federally recognized Indian tribe entitled to sovereign immunity from suit. The Complaint should also be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because the Complaint fails to properly put a federal question before the Court. Finally, the Complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because the Complaint fails to plead sufficient facts above a speculative level.

This is not the first issue within the new nation that became a federally recognized sovereign tribe just a few years ago in 2018.

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Bear Mountain in Amherst County has been the Tribe’s home for more than 10,000 years, according to the Monacan Indian Nation’s website. The nation has more than 2,600 citizens.

Now, there is a debate among some within the Nation over who is really the Chief and who sits on the Tribal Council.

In a letter from the Federal Bureau of Indian Nations, that the defense submitted to the court as evidence, the regional director writes that Branham was elected Tribal Chief of the Monacan Indian Nation in June 2019 and his term will end in June 2023.

Thompson Jr. said some members of the tribe voted to remove Branham and his council, then elected their own council.

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"We had a large contingent of tribal citizens come together in a November meeting,” Thompson Jr., said. “We had resolutions that we passed as tribal citizens. Over 100 tribal citizens attended that meeting.... We did all that in accordance with our bylaws at the time. We did that in accordance with reviewing federal law and other precedent."

Werkheiser said that was not a legitimate election.

"This is not uncommon in Indian countries, where you have disgruntled folks who didn't get what they wanted and then they pretend to hold elections, which are really fake elections,” Werkheiser, said. ”They try to cause confusion, which is really damaging to Indian Nations."

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Werkheiser has filed for the judge to dismiss this case, saying the tribe is a sovereign nation. Sanzone said this lawsuit isn’t against the tribe, but against three individuals who the defendants claim are not tribal officials and do not represent the nation.

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