Tonto Apache 'Justice' Widens Cultural Chasm

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Although the Tonto Apache reservation sits within Payson's town-limit signs, it sometimes seems to be in another galaxy.

There is a wholly different culture, a vastly different world view, just a mile or so south of the Highways 87/260 intersection, and us Anglos must bear that fact in mind before casting any judgments in the tribe's direction.

For this newspaper, there is an additional difficulty in covering events which unfold on the reservation: Other than the many donations to community causes, which are much appreciated, we are seldom given the opportunity to report on life within the tribe. Perhaps taking a tip from history, the Tonto Apaches have rarely embraced the idea of collaborating with outsiders who wish to tell tribal stories.

That is simply how things are, and the tribe has every right to that approach to the local press. But sometimes, silence only widens the cultural chasm.

Case in point: The first tribal-court jury trial in the Tonto Apache's 30-year history, wherein former tribal councilmember Jeri Johnson-DeCola was found guilty of 54 charges of fraud, and was last week ordered to pay around $100,000 in fines and fees. Why? Because three-and-a-half-years ago, she was convicted of driving under the influence which prosecutors agreed was the only dark spot on her criminal record and failed to report the conviction to the tribal council.

The prosecution deduced that, if Johnson-DeCola had told the council of the DUI, she would not have been able to work in the capacity of a councilmember. Therefore, every time she endorsed a paycheck, it was said, she committed what prosecutor Orville Brushia a master of overstatement termed "despicable crimes." Even though, in Johnson-DeCola's absence, someone else would have been hired to do the same work for the same salary.

From this side of the reservation's border, Johnson-DeCola's punishment, including her banishment from ever again serving the tribe in an official capacity, is tragic. It is essentially a life sentence for a woman who has been one of the most influential and forward-moving members of the Tonto Apache tribe since it became federally recognized in 1972.

But that's just the view from Anglo sensibilities. As for the view from the tribe, Johnson-DeCola's conviction which she plans to appeal to the highest court available to her must speak for itself.

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