Tribal Chairman Purnell Swett in recent weeks has waved the Lumbee Tribe’s constitution when trying to swat away allegations that he overstepped his boundaries while crafting a contract for longtime buddy Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend to serve as tribal administrator.
But that defense was overturned on Friday when the four justices on the tribe’s Supreme Court ruled against Swett — and in favor of the Tribal Council — saying there were problems with Lowry-Townsend’s contract, specifically its salary range and a clause that gave Swett unilateral power to extend its length. Swett took the news in stride, saying he would abide by the ruling and enjoy this weekend’s powwow. Friday was supposed to be Lowry-Townsend’s last day as administrator, but this saga has had no shortage of interesting turns so we will see.
The ruling was an embarrassing defeat for Swett, but demonstrates functionality of the government, which only recently celebrated its 10th birthday, although it seems much older. The court’s decision validates the government’s checks-and-balance system — the ability of one branch, in this case the judicial, to make sure another branch, in this case the executive, doesn’t grab too much power. The third branch, the legislative, was key in getting the matter to the court.
Now would be a good time to move forward, but there is still the not-so-little matter of a recent audit by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hanging like an anvil overhead. Swett has said he welcomes the scrutiny as a way to squash the perception that he has misdirected money, a view that is held by many but for which there is little public proof. There are already whispers from some council members that Swett should resign — and a recall is an option for members.
The elephant in the room is how all this will affect Lumbee recognition. If the audit comes back anything other than clean, then legislators in Washington, D.C., who are looking for any reason to continue their opposition, will have more than enough ammunition, and the job for Rep. Mike McIntyre, still recognition’s biggest cheerleader, will rise in degree of difficulty.
But what looks now like a train wreck could actually grease the rails to recognition if the tribe gets dealt the right cards. The tribal government last week demonstrated that its constitution is more than a piece of paper. That is something that skeptics in Washington who might be inclined to support recognition, but are uneasy with much of what they see, should welcome.
Recognition has been a long struggle, and never was it more likely to be achieved than last year, when the tribe’s dance with wolves in Nevada pulled the rug from underneath all the progress. Could it be that for a second straight year that the actions of tribal administrators push the recognition prize farther away?