By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Christine Walker had already enraged many of those she governed. For more than two years, the secretive leader of the Chemehuevi Indians had used the unique powers and autonomy of her tribal government's semisovereign status to undertake what many describe as a systematic course of despotism and corruption.
Allegations of embezzlement, election rigging, civil rights violations and outright theft by Walker's government flowed freely through the 200 or so tribal members on the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation.
They were seething, but unsure how to deal with the superstitious, middle-aged woman who had taken over their tribe and seemed to be contorting their once-placid lives in ways they could not combat.
But the tribal members were not the only ones Walker had outraged. More than 400 mostly white retirees rented mobile-home sites and boat slips at the tribe's scenic resort on the California shore of Lake Havasu. The resort was the bedrock of the tribe's economic strength.
Yet Walker was trying to raise rents at the resort--in some cases by as much as 300 percent--and threatening to evict folks who had been coming to the lake for years to play on its clear waters.
The reservation was a tinderbox of rage, and the spark came one Thursday morning in January.
It was a small matter, and would have passed unnoticed if people were not so scared and frustrated. But on that day, the American flag was not raised over the marina.
The problem, it would later turn out, was that a clip used to fasten the flag to its cord had broken. Rumor, however misguided, spread quickly through the reservation--Walker, her detractors concluded, was so arrogant she wouldn't even fly the American flag. She was a dictator, and this just proved it.
Enough is enough, they said. Christine Walker simply has to go.
For want of a clip, the flag did not fly, and for want of a flag, the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation was thrown into open revolution.
"That's when we knew it was a full-out dictatorship," says tribal member Rusty Two Crows. "That just pissed everybody off."
Within the next four days, the reservation took a plunge that would spawn months of ugly turmoil and civil unrest, a power struggle worthy of a banana republic from which the tribe has yet to recover.
Every day for the next three months, a protest line was set up outside the double-wide trailer that served as tribal offices. Protesters besieged the place, taunting and challenging Walker and her government. With demonstrations by day and graffiti warfare by night, the dissidents waged a psychological campaign of attrition against Walker, trying to break her reign and drive her from office.
Walker responded by hiring armed mercenaries, holing up in her house and continuing to govern while refusing to talk with those who once elected her.
Each side claimed that the other made death threats, and several times gunfire erupted, although no one was hurt and it was unclear who was doing the shooting.
Finally, the stand-off culminated on April 23, when federal agents, acting on complaints from the dissidents and homeowners, raided the tribe's council house and Walker's home, hauling away a truckload of documents as part of an investigation into alleged corruption by Walker's regime, and possible complicity by some employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Walker and her embattled political retinue fled the reservation, saying they feared for their lives. They have since returned only once--with armed sheriff's department escorts--to collect their personal belongings.
Within days dissident tribal members took control of the council-house trailer and installed their own government, vowing that Walker's regime would not be allowed to return.
A modicum of peace returned to the reservation, but the turmoil is far from over. Walker will not renounce her post and is trying to govern in exile, still recognized by the BIA as the tribe's rightful leader.
Although it clearly seems to represent the will of most tribal members, the makeshift tribal government has not gained recognition from the BIA and has no legal authority to conduct business.
The tribe's bank accounts have been frozen, its resort business is on the verge of collapse and conspiracy theories abound as to who is trying to save the tribe and who is trying to drive it under.
The dissidents claim Walker's tyrannical tenure was designed to oust them from the reservation so she could sell it out for an ambitious gambling resort. Upon seizing the council house, they found documents linking Walker's government to the Cabazon Indian tribe, a small Southern California band whose notorious reputation chills many who have heard the stories about its gambling wealth, shadowy attempts to manufacture weapons and the unsolved murders linked to the tribe.
Walker's supporters say she was trying to save the tribe from financial self-destruction after years of inept tribal governance, and that it is her opponents who want to sell out the reservation.
Had it happened in another country--say, with "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua--the Chemehuevi Rebellion might have garnered attention from national political leaders, at least prompting them to take sides in the dispute. Several hundred of this country's own, after all, are waging a battle to regain their civil rights and return democracy to their government.