The following letter was submitted by Ron Napoles
I am writing in response to the Bishop Paiute Tribal Council statement from December 2015 concerning the Bishop Paiute Court Of Appeals reversal of trespass charges against me and six other tribal members. The Tribal Council’s statement, which appeared in various local media, directly quotes Chairman Gerald Howard making false claims regarding the role of the Bishop Paiute Court and the scope of the Tribal Council’s power. Ultimately, he presents a dangerous viewpoint of tribal sovereignty.
First, it should be stated that the Bishop Tribal Court of Appeals opinion concerning the trespass citations and corresponding rulings of law is the only opinion of legal standing. Gerald Howard’s opinions on this matter, while reflecting the Council’s wishes, are not supported by the law of our tribe.
Mr. Howard’s views on the Court’s authority show a profound misunderstanding of the Bishop Tribal Court’s function in tribal government. The Intertribal Court of Southern California is the Bishop Paiute Tribal Court of Appeals. The Bishop Paiute Tribal Council created our court by tribal ordinance which states, “The judicial power of the Bishop Paiute Tribe shall be vested in the judiciary which shall consist of a Tribal Court and a Court of Appeals…”
Therefore when Mr. Howard says, “The [Appeals] Court was not asked to decide on (the land) matter; it was a trespass case where the Bishop Tribal Court has jurisdiction,” he fails to understand that the Appeals Court is a division of the Bishop Tribal Court. Rather than requiring Tribal Council permission to proceed in hearing our case, the Appeals Court acted in its lawful function according to the Court Ordinance.
The appeals court is integral to our judicial system, as it affords tribal members the right to appeal lower court decisions. The Appeals Court has judicial authority within our sovereign tribe. It is not under the authority of the Tribal Council nor is the council immune to legal scrutiny when it brings charges against tribal members.
Chairman Howard’s comments also demonstrate a misconception of tribal sovereignty. Tribal sovereignty is the rights of federally recognized tribes to self govern. Sovereign authority does not rest solely on the word of the Tribal Council. It shares government authority with the General Council (tribal members), The Owens Valley Board of Trustees and the Bishop Tribal Court. The Court comprises a branch of our government authorized to render legal decisions based on law and fact.
The Tribal Council’s trespass charges were based on its claims that it had legal possession of the land in question. The Appeals Court determined that according to the tribe’s law, my aunt Geraldine Pasqua has sole right to occupancy and possession of the land. To this Mr. Howard remarked, “[t]he Intertribal Court doesn’t have the authority to tell the Bishop Paiute Tribe how to assign land. That’s the sovereign right of our Tribe.”
He is mistaken in both the understanding of Court authority and the governmental components of sovereignty. Our Judiciary Branch provided necessary checks and balances rendering a sound and reasoned decision based on the record, and legal arguments cited by both parties.
Chairman Howard’s statements on Tribal Council power are misleading and reveal a remarkable point of view. He states, “The court’s opinion affirms that the power to determine land assignments rests with the governing bodies, the Bishop Paiute Tribal Council and the Owens Valley Board of Trustees.”
The Court opinion makes no such affirmation of Tribal Council power nor would it be logical for the court to bestow “power” on any government entity beyond adherence to existing laws. What is most telling in the Chairman’s statement is that it precisely reflects the Tribal Council’s viewpoint of itself possessing power beyond adherence to the tribe’s law including our 1962 Land Ordinance. The Court’s opinion consistently affirms that our tribe’s law applies to all, including and especially the Tribal Council. At the root of this trespass case is the Council’s attempt to claim our land under the false presumption of ultimate power.
The Court opinion ruled against several years of Tribal Council claims to our family land assignments. Chief among these is an alleged land exchange brokered by Gerald Howard in 2006. Mr. Howard claimed that one of our family members had exchanged land behind the Paiute Palace Casino with the Tribal Council. He wrote an internal letter that lacked adherence to the Tribe’s land ordinance and failed to garner approval from the Owens Valley Board of Trustees. This letter was used as the basis for the 2013/2014 Tribal Council’s physical takeover and occupation of my family’s land. After careful consideration of evidence, the Appeals Court held that no legal land exchange took place and recognizes our family’s rights to the land.
Finally, Gerald Howard states, “[F]rom a legal standpoint, the Bishop Paiute Tribal Council is not bound by the decision of the Appeals Court according to the Tribe’s attorneys.” In light of the legitimate role of the Court in Tribal government and the Council’s participation in every step of legal process, Mr. Howard’s statement is truly bizarre.
At the Tribal Council’s command, Bishop Paiute Tribal Police executed trespass citations to me, members of my family and friends. The Tribal Council availed itself of the Court to charge and prosecute us. We appeared in the local tribal court, entered evidence into the record, as did the Tribal Council. Initially, the Tribal Court judge sided with the Council saying, “if the Tribal Council tells me it’s their land, there’s nothing I can do about that.”
We engaged in the Tribal Court appeal process, paying court fees and filing court briefs per the Appellate Rules. For its part, the Tribal Council’s lawyer produced a response brief as directed. The process concluded with oral arguments presented by both parties directly to the 3-judge panel of the Appeals Court in Rincon, California. Our family, most of them elders and lacking full mobility, made the long journey south at their own expense. The Tribal Council sent its lawyer but no Tribal Council members or tribal representative attended.
After initiating the trespass citations, participating and expending the Tribe’s money and resources in the legal process, the Chairman now claims the Council is not bound by the court’s decision. It is Gerald Howard’s duty to honor the decision of the judicial branch if he is truly committed to the sovereignty of the Bishop Paiute Tribe. To not abide by the ruling will undermine the court system and our sovereignty, putting the Tribe on a dangerous course.
Intertribal Court of Southern California Court of Appeals Opinion–
Bishop Paiute Tribal Council v. Terry Bouch et al, available at
Bishop Tribal Court Ordinance available at http://www.bishoppaiutetribe.com/assets/ordinances/
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