Tribal Belt

Margarite Faras tried to fix what she thought was wrong with the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Instead, San Carlos fixed her.

San Carlos -- Margarite Faras sits at her dining room table weighing the cost/benefits of her weaponry. The old snub-nose .38 is handy but about as accurate as a blunderbuss. The high-powered rifle is deadly beyond 30 yards but worthless in close quarters. A sawed-off 12-gauge would be best, but the blasts would shred her home and possibly snap her tiny chicken bone of a clavicle.

The 9 mm. will have to do. She lifts the sleek black automatic in her right hand, slips down the safety, stands, walks to the front window and peeks out the blinds into the warm summer night.Outside her double-wide trailer, over in the field across the train tracks, Buck Kitcheyan, Earnest Victor Jr. and several dozen of their friends, family and fellow San Carlos Apaches are holding an impromptu pep rally. This evening, the old powers-that-be of the tribe are going to crush their arch-rival, the headstrong reformer Margarite Faras.

A microphone is passed among speakers.

After receiving several death threats, Margarite Faras now sleeps with her pistol.
Paolo Vescia
After receiving several death threats, Margarite Faras now sleeps with her pistol.
Paolo Vescia

"Margarite Faras is a Mexican!"

"Margarite Faras was adopted!"

"Boycott her Taco Shack!"

The diatribes crescendo. "Margarite Faras said 'damned Apache' on the radio!"

"Margarite Faras wants to lock up your children!"

"Margarite Faras is an atheist!"

"Don't buy Margarite Faras' tacos and tamales! She makes them out of cats!"

"Margarite Faras doesn't want you to have running water!"

"I hold Margarite Faras accountable for the death of my nephew!"

"Margarite Faras, can you hear me?!" Kitcheyan yells through the PA system several times in both Apache and English. "We are going to remove you from the reservation!"

At 10 p.m., the phone rings. A man calmly says, "You're going to die tomorrow." Brawny trucks roar past her house with young men yelling "Leave now!" and "Get out, Mexican bitch!"

People walk along the road, back behind the trees, down through the wash, in and out of the shadows. Her dogs bark in all directions.

Her hands begin to shake and she feels like vomiting and she begins to sob.

And she curses the day two years ago when she agreed to run for the San Carlos tribal council.

And she begins to believe what other reformers here inevitably come to believe: That the proud and storied San Carlos Apache Nation, her home of 50 years, cannot be saved from itself.

The San Carlos tribal government is known nationally as one of the most inept and corrupt in America's Indian Country.

And now, things are apparently getting worse.

In late 1994, former tribal chairman Buck Kitcheyan pleaded guilty in federal court to 14 counts of embezzlement of tribal funds, estimated at $134,000. Allegations of similar corruption continue to swirl around the tribe's present leaders and administrators, many of whom are related to or have strong political ties to Kitcheyan.

One of the chief whistle-blowers against Kitcheyan was Margarite Faras.

Faras was elected to the tribal council in late 1998. As a council member, she fought for audits and overhauls in numerous tribal administrations.

The audits found fraud and ineptitude; the overhauls began bringing greater professionalism and accountability to numerous tribal programs.

Faras helped pull the tribe from the brink of bankruptcy, cutting the tribe's debt from about $8 million to $3 million.

She pushed for more tribal police, more cooperation with state and federal law enforcement officials, a new jail, a new youth detention facility and better staffing, training and equipment for the tribe's emergency medical response teams.

She made improvements, but she also made a lot of enemies.

In July, Faras was ousted from the council in a political coup that appears to have violated numerous tribal laws. A tribal judge issued a temporary restraining order in September blocking the recall election to fill her seat.

But TROs mean little in San Carlos politics. Faras' seat already has been filled by Anson Sneezy, the brother of her chief rival, council vice chairman Velesquez Sneezy.

Velesquez Sneezy won't talk about "anything regarding Margarite Faras or the tribe."

"I have been told by my lawyers not to speak to any of these issues you're asking about until everything has been settled in the courts," he says. "We just don't want to cause any more damage."

The stakes are getting higher.

In the last decade, the San Carlos Apache tribe has landed more than $80 million dollars in water-rights settlements and continues to fight for millions more.

The massive Apache Gold Casino is poised to rake in millions of dollars as a mountain gambling retreat for the endless busloads of well-heeled Arizona retirees.

But, because of the tribe's well-documented problems with fraud and bad accounting, federal officials won't release the water-rights money until the tribe comes up with an economic-development plan showing how the money will be spent and properly accounted for.

The federal government put the tribe on "high risk" status two years ago, meaning federal agencies will only allot money to the tribe on a quarterly basis rather than as a yearly lump sum.

Over the past few months, Faras has sent bulging packets documenting alleged fraud and violations of tribal and federal law to more than a dozen congressmen, senators and officials in the FBI, BIA, U.S. Attorney's Office and the Department of the Interior.

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