The Wheels of Justice


August 13, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

Six years ago, with a great amount of noise, federal agents stormed the Coyote Valley Reservation in Redwood Valley.  They arrested then-tribal chair Priscilla Hunter at gunpoint in front of children, charged her with embezzlement, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, drove her from office, threatened her with imprisonment, and forced her to live under a cloud of criminality.  This week charges were dismissed. (Except for one misdemeanor failure to file one income tax return)

Hunter released this statement about her ordeal:


The family of Priscilla Hunter, want to thank the many good hearted people who submitted support letters on her behalf  requesting the Federal District  Court render a lenient sentence in her sentencing hearing  on Thursday  Aug 6 in the Northern District Federal Court.  Priscilla  pled guilty to one misdemeanor charge of failing to file a tax return, whereas she was charged with misappropriation of tribal casino revenue, obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy and the U.S Attorneys  spent over six years in the investigation and pre-trial litigation of the case.  All of the charges  except the failure to file a tax return charge  were dismissed.

As stated by local press the investigation and charges that were leveled against the former Tribal Council were the first effort of a joint federal and state Task Force established to fight crime in Indian Country and they may have started with a bang but “ended in a whimper”.

But, how does one repair the damage done by the Federal and state governments stepping into an internal power struggle in the tribe?

How does one repair the loss of her home due to foreclosure during the pendency of this litigation throughout which she was rendered virtually unemployable because of the cloud over her name?

How does one repair the trauma to her grandchildren who were held hostage at gun point and who were made to take mug shot photos by the FBI during the raid  on her home?

Could it be that she annoyed those in power in the Indian gaming industry by being the only Tribe in California to sue the state for bad faith negotiation in the Tribal-State compact negotiations based on the Indian Gaming  Regulatory Act’s express provisions that only the cost of regulating Indian gaming could be negotiated , not the automatic 25% of net profits agreed to by the large gaming tribes?

Could it be that by travelling to the state of Chiapas in Mexico to serve as witness for peace for Mayan Indians who took a stand for their land rights against attempts by the Mexican government under NAFTA to privatize the Indian land base and open it up for purchase by foreign corporations, left her vulnerable to scrutiny under the Bush administration’s Patriot’s Act?

Could it be that standing up to oil industry lobbyists on behalf of the small local tribes fighting Bush Administration efforts to reopen the Arctic National Refuge for oil drilling rubbed a few feathers the wrong way at the national level?

How many millions of dollars did the Federal and State task force expend in investigating and prosecuting this case which they virtually had to concede as groundless, since all of the substantive theft, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges they alleged she committed have been dismissed?

With over six years to investigate and prosecute the case against her and the former Tribal Council members both the federal and state governments had to concede that they did not have the evidence to go forward.  When all of the major, non tax charges were dismissed all these authorities could state was, “No comment”.

We attach letters of support submitted on Priscilla’s behalf for her sentencing on one charge of failure to file a tax return.   All of these letters testify to her contribution to the advancement of tribal sovereignty, the protection of mother earth and her commitment to serving her tribal community. They come from a host of political friends and allies including Alice Huffman, the President of the N.A.A.C.P for the State of California, environmentalists,  lawyers, social justice advocates, including Holly Near, state officials, friends, family and persons who worked with Priscilla over her many years of service to the local, statewide and national Indian tribes.

It would only be fair of local press to afford as much attention to Priscilla’s survival of this ordeal as to their coverage of the false allegations against her.

Last Thursday, August 6, 2009 Priscilla at the sentencing hearing had the first opportunity to speak to the Court regarding the case. Priscilla spoke of how her family had suffered and been traumatized by the overzealous raids on their homes, including a family member being thrown to the ground, an elder being unable to leave her home during a 12 hour search in which she literally cried the whole time and that she herself was handcuffed and unable to move from a couch in her living room for over 4 hours.  She also testified that she lost her home and was unable to find a job during the six years of this case.  She spoke from the heart for over 20 minutes and told the Court that no matter if the federal and state governments  violated her good name, that she knows who she is and what she has contributed to her Indian community, and that no one could take that away from her.  Upon the rendering of the sentence the entire court room broke out in applause.

The Judge imposed a sentence of community service and probation noting that he had read all of the letters of support that had been submitted on her behalf, all of which testified to her integrity and many years of service to Indian tribes locally, nationally and internationally.  The U.S. Attorney had requested 4 months in prison and a year of house arrest, noting that he did not think she had been repentant enough.
(photo of Priscilla Hunter from “Sojourn Magazine” Winter 1998)