Woman Reclaims Tribe Chair

First elected in 1986, Jeri DeCola wins 2008 Tonto tribal election

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The subdued recent Tonto Apache Tribal Council election -- no campaign signs, little fanfare, and no bitter words spat back and forth -- is like a tidy comforter thrown over an unmade bed.

Underneath the seeming docility lie the makings of history.

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Jeri DeCola, newly elected chairperson of the Tonto Apache Tribe, completes her day with some last-minute paperwork.

First, only four members were elected, though five seats sat vacant.

"This has never happened before," said incoming Chair Jeri DeCola.

Councilor Farrell Hoosava ran for and took the vice chair from Kenny Davis, albeit Hoosava's still unexpired councilor term.

Lanell Hooke retained her council seat, and Calvin Johnson unseated Vivian Burdette. Hoosava's now vacated seat remains so.

DeCola said while another election could be held, the council can legally run business with four members since only three are required for a quorum.

"If all five seats were open, we should have voted on five seats," DeCola said.

But "we have to handle with care," she added. "It will set a precedent."

Hoosava declined to comment. No other councilors were available for comment before press time.

Perhaps the most remarkable story in this election is DeCola herself.

In 1986, DeCola was the first woman elected to a tribal council chair. The culture was matriarchal, DeCola said, so voting a woman chair was unremarkable.

The tribe was 14 years old and employed four people in 1986.

In 1999, DeCola sat on the council when fellow councilors discovered DeCola's year-old DUI conviction. They forced her to resign, alleging that DeCola committed fraud by not disclosing her DUI while continuing her council duties.

The first tribal jury ever convicted DeCola of fraud in 2002. But the fight wasn't over. DeCola was determined to prove her innocence.

The legal battle waged until March 2007, when a tribal appeals court dismissed the conviction.

On June 14, DeCola reclaimed tribal council chair in a quiet campaign, upsetting Ivan Smith as chair. Smith "happens to be my brother. I replaced him." But he doesn't seem too mad, DeCola said.

In a campaign that unseated three of five members, DeCola said the election stayed civil.

"It was part of the way the people are. My husband, who's a non-native, didn't understand," she said.

And indeed, JJ DeCola was surprised. "Don't you put up posters and don't you say how bad that guy is?" he wondered. "It's all family and they don't advertise and you don't even know there's an election, really."

But an election there was, and for DeCola, redemption. "A lot of people were congratulating me and saying I had come full circle," she said.

Along the turbulent way, DeCola credits her tenacity in fighting her critics with her faith that God would guide and save her.

JJ is proud.

"Since I've known my wife, she's been the most unbelievably honest person I've ever known ... She believes in the Lord and that he would vindicate her in all the false charges brought against her."

The new councilors will be sworn in on Saturday at 10 a.m.

On Wednesday, DeCola sat in her office, a cream and turquoise needlework cross dangling from her computer screen, pictures of family tacked onto a bulletin board.

"I've been busy since Monday," she said. "I'm not even official yet."

DeCola said the biggest issues facing the tribe are water management and developing the acreage in the Tonto National Forest the tribe recently acquired as part of a land exchange.

"I would like to see a golf course -- but of course a golf course takes water -- to complement our casino and our hotel," DeCola said. She'd like to enhance the reservation's stature as a destination to attract tourists and money.

"It is my dream, my vision to create a good future, a prosperous future."

The tribe's workings have grown since DeCola last presided over them. Instead of four, they now employ more than 300.

JJ said DeCola's length of tribal leadership experience strengthens her skills. "She was the one who put in for the land swap many years ago," he said.

"She's got big hopes and positive thinking and projects that she's going to try to initiate if it's acceptable to her people."

DeCola said she's learned compassion from her experience.

She tells the tale of Solomon, who "didn't ask for health nor riches, but the wisdom to lead the people."

Such is the untidy bed sheet hidden by a fluffy comforter, and one woman's efforts at smoothing the underneath.

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