Healy Lake chief refuses to step down despite court orders

Jerzy Shedlock

Despite the federal court order barring a Fairbanks woman from taking positions that include the handling of money, she has refused to give up her rank as Healy Lake's village chief, according to her opponents.

Joann Polston pleaded not guilty in late June to theft of government funds and embezzlement and theft from a tribal organization. According to a federal indictment filed against Polston in May, she -- as first chief and tribal administrator of the Healy Lake Tribe, also known as the Mendas Cha-ag Tribe -- paid herself up to $56,000 from the tribe’s accounts, on top of a salary of between $36,000 and $43,000.

The indictment offers no details about how the money was spent. But members of an opposing group, who claim to be the rightful leaders of Mendas Cha-ag, argue problems started in Healy Lake nearly a decade ago when Polston seized power.

Healy Lake Tribe’s constitution and ordinances provide for yearly elections. However, an election was not held from 2005 until April 2012. An opposing group claims victory in that election, but they say Polston refused to step down. She controls the tribe’s bank accounts as chief and administrator. The account held about $1 million at one point, but her rivals say they are unsure where the funds have gone.

Depending on the source, somewhere between four and a dozen people live in the rural village situated around Healy Lake, southeast of Fairbanks. It’s accessible by plane or boat in the summer and snowmachine in winter. The town’s inhabitants have been living in the area for more than 11,000 years, according to the Mendas Cha-ag Native Corporation, and are used to subsisting off the land.

Ray Fifer and Gary Lee say Healy Lake has fewer amenities than in the past. The two men are the respective first and second chiefs of the group that opposes Polston's leadership. Court documents term the opposition the “Fifer faction.”

The town was largely abandoned as Polston failed to care for it, Lee said. The village school, washeteria, medical clinic and tribal offices were all eventually boarded up as the chief set up shop in Fairbanks shortly after her power grab, Fifer said. Inside the buildings, documents and junk are strewn on the floors, they said in a previous interview.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs stepped in to try and mediate the disputed leadership issue, according to a letter sent to Alaska’s regional BIA director from the Fifer faction’s attorney, Michael Walleri.

“While my clients participated, your proposed process did not bear fruit, primarily because of the lack of cooperation from Ms. Polston,” the letter reads. The Fifer group also alleges Polston refuses to follow U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline’s conditions of release.

Beistline wrote in the conditions that Polston “shall not be in any position in which her duties involve the handling of money during pre-trial release.” He also barred Polston from leaving the Fairbanks North Star Borough and from having contact with anyone who may be a victim or witness in the investigation or prosecution.

Walleri argues the conditions make it impossible for Polston to serve as first chief of Mendas Cha-ag, specifically her ineligibility to handle cash. And according to the attorney’s letter, Beistline advised that the “victim” in the case was the tribe.

“The sum effect of these release conditions make it impossible for Ms. Polston to serve as tribal chief prior to her trial,” Walleri wrote. “Thus, we believe that the current circumstances preclude the BIA from recognizing her as tribal chief, and we request that you take action immediately to extend recognition to the Fifer group as the governing body of the tribe...”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has not returned requests for comment.

Walleri said in an email that his clients are very concerned about the $1 million in tribal assets under Polston’s control. The funds have not been turned over to any known person, he said.

Alaska Regional BIA Director Bruce Laudermilk’s leadership decision is due by July 25, according to Walleri. If he does not make a decision, the Fifer faction can appeal to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.