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Rift deepens at Shinnecock reservation

Shinnecock trustee Lance Gumbs is surrounded by supporters

Shinnecock trustee Lance Gumbs is surrounded by supporters from local and state Indian tribes as he speaks on the steps of New York's City Hall. (Aug 23, 2010) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Tensions have been rising at the Shinnecock Indian reservation as two ousted trustees Tuesday night reasserted their leadership roles after trustee chairman Randy King declined to participate in a federal effort to mediate a deep tribal divide.

Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright, who were removed from office last year after two tribal votes that the men said failed to follow tribal law, attempted to meet at the Southampton reservation's community center Tuesday night, but the center was locked. Instead, they moved the meeting to the tribal Family Preservation Center across the street, Gumbs said.

Their aim, they said in a letter to federal regulators earlier this month, was to "restore order, peace and stability" to the tribe as the leadership rift deepens.

In a tribal notice sent out in advance of Tuesday's meeting, King and his slate of interim trustees noted that they did not call a meeting and said, "Any such attempt to conduct tribal business is illegal and without merit and will have no binding authority within the Nation."

Gumbs blasted the locking of the community center as "a violation of our tribal rights," and noted King's slate of three interim trustees was removed from office in a meeting last month. "They didn't want this meeting to happen because they didn't want the truth to come out," Gumbs said. "It's dividing the tribe almost to the point of civil war."

Meanwhile, an effort this month by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to mediate the division failed after King declined to participate, according to Shinnecock documents and tribal sources.

The tension comes as the tribe also grapples with a cash crunch after the primary backer for its plans to develop a casino on Long Island, Gateway Casino Resorts, suspended funding in November, according to tribal sources and documents. A tribal source said the funding was $130,000 a month.

A spokesman for Gateway, which is owned by Little Caesars Pizza founder Marian Ilitch and Detroit casino developer Michael Malik, declined to comment.

Members of the tribe voted twice last year to remove Gumbs, Wright and members of a tribal gaming authority after revelations of an attempt by those officials to secure land and other economic development projects for the tribe, including some that were casino related. King then appointed three interim trustees by a show-of-hands vote, tribal sources said.

At the time, the tribe said the vote to remove addressed "accusations of wrongdoing" against the men, and King said it demonstrated that "the Nation comes first, and always will come first, before any individual members."

But the removed officials and their supporters refused to recognize the interim officials or the vote that put them in place. And they said the removal of Gumbs and Wright was based on a flawed investigation, stolen emails and an illegal process. They have presented an extensive legal analysis of the vote, including allegations of ballot-box tampering, to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to a copy of the document. The tribe is attempting this year to complete and ratify a constitution, its first.

Gumbs and Wright, in a separate letter to the bureau last week, noted the federal government continues to recognize them as elected leaders and that there is no precedent for appointing interim trustees.

Correspondence to the tribe from bureau regional director Franklin Keel said the agency "has never withdrawn its recognition of the slate of trustees elected in April," a slate that includes Gumbs and Wright.

Alan Gross, a mediator appointed by the bureau, was to visit the reservation recently to resolve the dispute, but the Shinnecock tribal attorney canceled, saying King was unreachable, according to a copy of a letter from the attorney that was shown to Newsday.

Shinnecock spokeswoman Beverly Jensen declined to comment.

Calls to Keel weren't returned, and a bureau spokeswoman declined to comment.

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