Too Many Chiefs

The only center Dallas has to help Native Americans is mired in ineptitude and tribal politics

"We had to take their word for it" on financial matters, Jackson says. No matter how often board members pressed for accounting records, he says, the documents were never produced, including things such as Biermann's travel expenses while she was executive director.

"We were supposed to have approved her travel, had reports back from her travel, and see the expense accounts. We never saw that," McLemore says.

But there is plenty more about the center's operations that the board has been unable to get a handle on.

For bureaucracy's sake, Indian tribes are lumped together and expected to act as one. Sometimes that's about as realistic as expecting Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland to start playing nicely.

"A lot of people have a habit of, when you're talking about Indians, assuming them to be a homogeneous group," says Shunatona, an attorney and former DIC board member. "It's not really the case. Tribal members have certain measures of affiliation with their tribe and pride. You're going to have conflicts."

There are members of at least 40 tribes within the 11-county area the DIC serves, and members of at least six tribes working at the center. Tribal friction has surfaced in the form of lawsuits claiming that the DIC has discriminated against employees because of their tribal affiliations.

A lawsuit filed by former employee Lynne Armstrong in June paints a portrait of tribalistic attitudes run amuck. What Armstrong says began as a joke quickly turned into a real fight and ultimately cost Armstrong her job.

The trouble began in February when Tydlaska was named the center's accounting director. Upon learning that Tydlaska is a Creek, Armstrong commented "another Creek?" and said his appointment looked "like tribalism" to her. Armstrong says she was merely repeating a long-standing joke about how many administrative staffers belonged to the Creek Nation, including former executive director Biermann.

But Administrative Assistant Emma Olea, who is Creek, took offense at Armstrong's comment and filed a complaint. Armstrong received a copy of Olea's complaint and filed a response with her supervisor, Ken Martinez. In her response, Armstrong claimed she was being subjected to a double standard and asserted that "bias is equally repugnant regardless of which direction it flows."

The two women and Biermann wrangled for several weeks over what should be done about Olea's complaint.

Armstrong's bosses finally decided to issue a disciplinary warning. Armstrong refused to sign the memo accepting the admonishment, and ultimately was fired.

Armstrong has since sued the center seeking damages for alleged discrimination, libel, and slander.

Bob Goodman, the attorney representing Armstrong, also handled a similar discrimination suit filed by former Clinic Director Sharon Turcotte. After mediation, the center's insurance company agreed to pay Turcotte an undisclosed sum to settle the case, according to court records.

Goodman says Armstrong's case "is just another example of somebody riding roughshod in the situation."

Abe Jackson believes the board found itself "between a rock and a hard place" in Armstrong's case. Reinstating Armstrong after she'd been fired would have been "a slap in the face" to Biermann. On the other hand, siding with Biermann prompted the lawsuit.

Jackson says tribalism is a problem at DIC. He believes Biermann did favor hiring employees who, like herself, were members of the Creek Nation.

Biermann denies the charge, but declined to talk about the lawsuits filed by Armstrong or Turcotte. Current DIC board members also declined comment, saying they have signed a confidentiality agreement promising not to talk about pending litigation.

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the tribal center's woes than its inability to fix something as simple as a leaky roof.

The roof on the Jefferson Boulevard building has been leaking for years. Initially, DIC's board decided not to spend any money on repairs, hoping instead to buy a new building and move out. But a deal on a new building fell through in July 1995, and the board finally faced the inevitable.

In September 1995, Biermann told the board the roof needed to be fixed before it collapsed. Repairs were approved in October 1995, but it took almost another year to review bids. Work had still not begun in October 1996, when the roof finally did collapse, damaging computers, ceiling tiles, and carpeting, McLemore says.

Finally, in October, the center paid $30,000 to have the repairs done. But two weeks after the work was finished, the roof began leaking again.

The center is now trying to get the contractor to come back and fix the roof properly, Tydlaska says. The problem, apparently, is that the work crew left bottles on the roof that washed into the drains and plugged them up.

Storm runoff was effectively dammed up, and pooled on the flat roof. Leaks developed, and part of the center's ceiling collapsed. One-third of the building remains closed and cannot be used.

The collapsed ceiling spawned other problems. Soggy carpet created a fungus problem, according to Armstrong, the former employee who is suing the center for job discrimination. Armstrong has also filed a claim of workplace injury with the Texas Worker's Compensation Commission.

According to tribal center memos, Armstrong says she began having problems breathing, especially in her office, and a doctor told her the problems were caused by fungus, mold, and bacteria in the carpeting. Armstrong asked to have her office carpeting replaced several times with no response.

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THE DALLAS INTER-TRIBAL CENTER was started by one person Bernice Johnson. Who saw that their was need for the Native American who lived in the Dallas Metro area. Please give credit where credit is deserve. Thank you.