Sault Tribe chair faces censure from board, possible historic removal from power

Aaron Payment calls investigation a ‘political coup,’ refutes allegations

By: - January 5, 2022 6:03 pm

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack takes questions from 2014 National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Chairperson Aaron Payment (left) of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, during the Executive Council Winter Session, at the Westin Washington City Center in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, Mar. 13, 2014. | USDA photo by Lance Cheung.via Flickr Commons

Ongoing conflict within the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians’ tribal government has led to an attempt to oust its chairperson of 10 years, Aaron Payment, over nearly a dozen allegations of misconduct.

Ten of the 12 members on the Sault Tribe’s Board of Directors — the governing body of the tribe — voted Tuesday to censure Payment and hire an external legal firm to investigate the allegations.

Payment has been the tribe’s chairperson since 2012, and also serves as secretary of the National Congress of American Indians. Payment described the board’s action to the Advance Wednesday as nothing more than a “political coup” and an attempt to embarrass him publicly.

“These are people’s opinions. This is politics,” Payment said.

Citing the Sault Tribal Code, the members claim in the Tuesday motion obtained by the Advance that Payment:

  • Violated his duty to create an environment that fosters respect and dignity
  • Violated his duty to maintain an environment free of harassment and intimidation
  • Intimidated, harassed and publicly attacked employees
  • Continually committed malicious public attacks upon Tribal members
  • Violated the medical privacy and procedures of individual Tribal members
  • Violated resolution 2012–222 privacy of board member phone and computer records
  • Breached/released confidential information, violating Tribal code pertaining to open meetings compliance
  • Campaigned prior to the notice of election, violating Tribal code pursuant to election ordinance
  • Violated travel resolution 93–123 code of professional conduct

Details of each allegation have not yet been shared. Payment could face removal by the board if the investigation finds evidence of just one of the claims.

Vice-Chairperson DJ Hoffman declined to comment, and referred requests for comment from board members to the tribe’s communication director, Jennifer Dale-Burton.

Dale-Burton declined to comment and said the tribe would not be sending out a press release.

Nathan Wright, a Sault Tribe member who has run for the board twice and has previously worked for the tribe, said it is a challenging situation but one he feels was “inevitable.”

“The disagreements he was having with the board … have detracted from the real work our tribe needs to accomplish,” Wright said. “… I asked tribal members to remain calm and patient as we let the process take place. We have to maintain some sort of unity during this difficult time.”

Payment described seeing the first signs of strife in summer 2020, when the tribe was debating how to distribute federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act money and clashing over whether it should be shared with at-large members outside the tribe’s service area.

Payment also said the board has been upset by him sharing certain documents and information publicly, although he maintains that he did so lawfully.

These are people’s opinions. This is politics.

– Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Chairperson Aaron Payment

“The list [of grievances] is long, but it seems to me like they’ll be able to summarily dismiss all of them” after an investigation, Payment said. “… I’m confident they’re not going to find anything, because I have a really strict moral [and] ethical code.”

“They’re not going to like the outcome when the investigation comes back, and I believe that they’re going to vote to remove me anyway,” he added.

He said he is collecting signatures for a citizen referendum that would overturn the decision to censure him. The signatures are not shown online, instead sent to Payment personally via physical mail, but Payment said he has received many signatures already and expects to get “thousands” in total.

Payment said he spoke to the board Wednesday morning to stay the motion to censure until he can speak with them further about what it could mean for the tribe on a federal level.

If Payment is removed from the chairperson position, he will not have any recourse and will be barred from running again in future elections.

It is not yet clear who would temporarily replace Payment in his duties if he is removed, how long the investigation will go on and which firm will be executing the investigation.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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