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Former Quapaw Chairman Disqualified from 2021 Election, Could Face More Severe Punishment

Quapaw Nation

Former Quapaw Tribal Chairman John Berrey has been barred from running from office by the Tribal Nation's Business Committee. The decision was made earlier this week after someone challenged his run for vice-chairman in the upcoming elections.

Berrey was the Quapaw Nation's chairman for 20 years until he lost last summer to newcomer Joseph Byrd. Then, a few months later, information from an audit alleged Berrey gave bonuses and pay raises totaling in the millions to himself and others without approval from the Business Committee.

Former Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey.
Quapaw Nation
Former Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey.

Berrey, along with former secretary treasurer Tamara Smiley-Reeves, filed a defamation suit in Cleveland County District Court in February 2021 against Byrd and others on the Business Committee. The suit was dismissed, and Berrey is facing 11 criminal charges including embezzlement and conspiracy in Quapaw Nation tribal court. He could face disenrollment from the Tribal Nation if he is convicted.

Byrd is the head of the Business Committee that disqualified Berrey. However, the decision was unanimous, with only the current Vice-Chair abstaining.

Berrey has denied any wrongdoing and claims the raises and bonuses given during his tenure were legitimate and legal.

Disenrollment is in the Quapaw Nation code, but it's unknown if this punishment has ever been used when citizens commit crimes.

Gabe Galanda is a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Confederation and an Indigenous Rights lawyer based in Seattle. He says disenrollment is not a suitable punishment.

"It is antithetical to tribal self-determination. It is not traditional, it is neocolonial in my estimation," said Galanda, who is representing the estate of Merlin Kent Jones, one of Berrey's former associates.

Galanda says there are other ways for tribal nations to handle conflict and that disenrollment is often used as a political vendetta.

According to Galanda disenrollment has happened in roughly 90 tribal communities out of 574 federally recognized tribes. That's roughly 15 percent of tribal nations that have used the tactic as punishment. He says he's seen it when those in power want to stay in power or don't like it when people speak out about things that their tribal government is doing.

"This is a move to not allow John Berrey to rerun for tribal chairman or tribal president, and while they're at it to just take him out of the tribal citizenry altogether," said Galanda. "And I just don't think it's justified, no matter what he's alleged to have done."

Quapaw Tribal elections are set to be held in July. The election committee first determined that Berrey was eligible to run for office, but that decision was later challenged by registered voters.

Those bringing the challenge say Berrey isn't fit to run for office because of his pending charges in Quapaw tribal court and because of the lawsuit he filed in non-tribal court. They say that action amounts to treason.

“In our roles as elected officials, we are required to exercise its powers in the best interest of the Tribe,” said the Quapaw Business Committee wrote in a statement. “It is the decision of the Business Committee to overturn the determination of the Election Committee by declaring John L. Berrey unsuitable for candidacy to the Quapaw Nation Business Committee.

According to Quapaw Nation law, the Business Committee’s decision is final, and cannot be appealed.

August 18th is the next date set for a 2nd pre-trial conference in Quapaw Nation Supreme Court for the former chairman.

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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