Quapaw Nation election
Current Secretary-Treasurer Kathryn "Wena" Supernaw was elected as the new chair of the Quapaw Nation Business Committee in the special election on Saturday, July 8, 2023. Supernaw is replacing former Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd, who resigned in April. (NonDoc)

In Saturday’s special election, Quapaw Nation citizens voted for current Secretary-Treasurer Kathryn “Wena” Supernaw to become the new chairwoman of the Business Committee, according to unofficial results. The election’s origin and related details underscore the political turmoil the sovereign tribal nation has experienced in recent years.

First elected as secretary-treasurer in 2022, Supernaw overwhelmingly won her first term as chairperson of the Business Committee, receiving 358 votes (81.17 percent). She will become the first woman to hold the position since Tamara Summerfield in 2002.

Former Chairman Grace Goodeagle received only 42 votes (9.52 percent), and Barbara Kyser Collier, former executive director of the Quapaw Nation Tribal Gaming Agency, received 41 votes (9.3 percent).

Supernaw is expected to be sworn in as chairwoman at the next scheduled Business Committee meeting July 15. The resulting vacancy of the secretary-treasurer position is expected to prompt another special election no later than Sept. 13. The Quapaw Nation Election Ordinance mandates vacancies be rectified by special election within 60 days.

The Quapaw chairperson is responsible for leading the Business Committee, which includes the vice-chairperson, secretary-treasurer and four other committee members. All Business Committee members serve two-year terms.

The Quapaw Nation Reservation spans 13,000 acres across northeast Ottawa County in the far northeast corner of Oklahoma. The reservation’s continued existence was functionally affirmed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in 2021 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma in 2020.

Beyond the weekend’s results, the Quapaw Nation’s annual election is scheduled to occur Saturday, July 22, and citizens are set to vote for vice-chairperson and three Business Committee member positions.

Current Vice-Chairwoman Callie Bowden is not running for reelection, but the six candidates for the position are:

  • Mary “Heather” Dismuke
  • Sonny Glass
  • Virginia Mouse
  • Amy Panther-Kvistad
  • Beth Romick-Blalock
  • Grant Schalk

Quapaw citizens will also select their preferred three candidates for the three Business Committee seats on July 22. The top three vote receivers will prevail among eight candidates:

  • Carolyn Button Nott
  • Linda Davis (incumbent)
  • Joey Giveswater-Smith
  • Abigail Logan
  • Larry Mercer (incumbent)
  • Michelle Newton (incumbent)
  • Melissa Wesley
  • Mick Wilson

Joseph Tali Byrd: Next chairperson needs more support

Saturday’s special election was held because former Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd resigned in April after the Election Committee certified a recall petition against him. The committee had called for a special referendum election on Byrd’s continued service as chairman, but he resigned instead.

First elected in 2020 and reelected in 2022, Byrd was seven months into his second term as chairman when he filed to run for the Cherokee Nation’s District 3 seat on the Tribal Council. In the Cherokee Nation general election in June, he came in third, receiving only 114 votes or 10.21 percent.

Byrd disclosed his Cherokee Nation candidacy during February’s Quapaw Nation Business Committee meeting and reminded everyone of an upcoming special General Council Meeting, which had been called because of a grievance brought against Bowden, the vice chairwoman who chose not to seek reelection this year.

Earlier that month, the Quapaw Nation’s Grievance Committee requested that Byrd call the meeting after Bowden was charged with several violations of the Quapaw Nation Criminal Code. The purpose of the meeting was to vote on whether to remove Bowden from office or clear her of the charges, and Byrd said he would not resign as chairman immediately “for these reasons.”

Bowden had allegedly asked tribal administration employees to raise the pay of a family member who works for the tribe and made the Quapaw Nation pay for an independent compensation analysis of which the Grievance Committee determined Bowden was the sole beneficiary.

Her charges also included asking a tribal employee to upload a “invalid” ethics resolution to the Quapaw website and disseminating said resolution to the Grievance Committee and those in attendance at the December 2022 Business Committee meeting.

According to KOSU, some Quapaw officials declined to speculate on the reason the recall petition had been filed against Byrd, but the drama involving Bowden and Byrd’s decision to seek office in the Cherokee Nation painted a tense background.

The Quapaw Nation’s Election Ordinance prohibits elected officials of the Quapaw Nation to simultaneously be elected officials of other tribes, and Byrd had reportedly told the Cherokee Nation Election Commission that he would resign as Quapaw chairman if elected in the Cherokee Nation.

“I hope, whoever the next chairman is, we actually give them the support they deserve, the necessary resources to execute their duties and we pay them what they’re worth,” Byrd said when announcing his resignation in the April Business Committee meeting. “I hope they receive everything I did not. Give them an assistant to help with their tremendously hectic schedule. Give them a fully-functioning Business Committee. Let them lead. Let them do what’s necessary to progress the Quapaw people.”

Byrd said he owns whatever mistakes he may have made during his tenure.

“For my entire time in office, my character, integrity and morals have been questioned. I’ve received death threats and many friends have become foes,” he said. “Instead of giving in, I chose to double down and be the leader that was needed during a time of much unrest. Throughout my time as chairman, I have made good decisions and some not so good decisions, but right or wrong, I own all of them.”

Following Byrd’s resignation, the Quapaw Nation released a statement about Byrd’s service to the tribe.

“We will continue to strengthen the Quapaw Nation through care of one another and responsible leadership as our nation transitions to the next chapter,” the anonymous statement said.

Former Chairman John Berrey ineligible to run for office, again

Former Chairman John Berrey also filed to run for the open chairman seat on the Business Committee, but his candidacy was impeded by two formal challenges and lingering allegations of embezzlement, a case which is currently pending before the Quapaw Nation Tribal Court. Berrey was chairman for 18 years before he lost his seat to Byrd.

The challenges, as summarized by the Business Committee, asserted that the Election Committee “ignored the precedent set by the Business Committee” when they first declared Berrey ineligible when he ran for vice chairperson in 2021, and the allegations surrounding Berrey’s pending embezzlement case “still render him unable to fulfill his duties and uphold his oath to the nation if elected.”

Despite Berrey failing to submit a response to the challenges, the Election Committee later determined Berrey was eligible to run for office. However, the challengers appealed to the Business Committee, which ultimately overturned the Election Committee’s decision by unanimous vote and disqualified Berrey for failing to adhere to the Quapaw Nation’s Election Ordinance.

Section 8.8 of the Election Ordinance mandates challenged candidates “shall file a typed or written response to the Election Committee.” The Business Committee said that because Berrey chose not to file a response to the two challenges against his candidacy, he “confessed” to the challenges, rendering him ineligible regardless of the challenges’ merits.

Despite their ruling, the Business Committee further explained their reasoning by evaluating the challenges brought forth.

“As explained in 2021, Berrey was an opposing civil party and criminal defendant against the nation in several lawsuits at the time,” a Business Committee press release said. “That litigation arose from allegations that Berrey and others misappropriated tribal funds for personal benefit. These allegations led to the suspension of Berrey’s license, pending investigation, issued by the Quapaw Nation Gaming Agency. The summation of these allegations, the lawsuits, the lack of necessary credentials, would have made it impossible for Berrey to uphold his oath to the nation, fulfill his duties as vice-chair, and would have potentially resulted in a vice-chair that is legally averse to the nation it serves.”

In June 2020, the Quapaw Nation contracted Innovative Gaming Solutions, a consulting firm which specializes in identifying fraud and teaching others to do the same, to perform a forensic internal audit after a whistleblower complaint prompted an investigation.

A few months later, the Quapaw Nation released the results of the audit, which alleged that Berrey and former Secretary-Treasurer Tamara Smiley-Reeves had paid out more than $34 million worth of illegal pay raises, bonuses, severance pay and donations.

Berrey has continued to refute the charges.