The Hopi tribe has ordered the administrator of Hopi Mission School to leave the reservation, and as far as the tribal council is aware, he has done so.
The private kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., is a Native American ministry with decades of Mennonite history and influence. HMS is a member of Mennonite Education Agency’s Mennonite Schools Council.
Superintendent Thane Epefanio and his wife, Michelle — a teacher at the school — were served with an expulsion order on Nov. 17. The couple was arrested Sept. 27 in Kykotsmovi and ultimately indicted by a grand jury in Flagstaff on multiple counts of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. The counts are based on documents prosecutors say were falsified to conceal Michelle Epefanio’s HMS employment history after she applied for Social Security disability insurance in 2009.
The tribal order was based on that indictment.
“Anyone who has violated any law of the United States is deemed to be dangerous to the Hopi tribe, and that is the basis of the request for an exclusion order,” said deputy general counsel Karen Pennington, an attorney for the Hopi tribal council.
She said on Dec. 23 that Hopi law enforcement had confirmed the Epefanios were not in a residence on land the school occupies.
“There are questions about whether they intend to come back to Hopi, and if they do, I will ask that a hearing officer be appointed,” Pennington said.
The expulsion order said that despite indictment on criminal charges, the couple returned to the reservation in October.
“Thane Epefanio represented to the parents of the children at the Mission School that you are under no criminal charges other than for traffic offenses,” it stated. “This is serious fraud on the members of the Hopi Tribe, including the students of the Mission School and your continued presence on the reservation may be harmful to the members of the Hopi Indian Tribe.”
The General Conference Mennonite Church — a predecessor of Mennonite Church USA — operated HMS from 1951 until the 1990s. President Calvin Coolidge deeded the land to the General Conference for Anabaptist education and mission in the 1920s.
The tribal notice came 10 days after HMS students’ family members discussed concerns in a three-hour meeting with an FBI agent conducting a separate investigation. Tribal officials were in attendance at that Nov. 8 meeting at Kykotsmovi Mennonite Church.
On Dec. 6, a receptionist at HMS said the school anticipated being open for the spring semester and that both Thane Epefanio and principal Rebecca Yoder were not present that day. All other attempts to reach the school did not succeed, and neither administrator responded to requests for comment. On Facebook, HMS indicated classes resumed after Christmas on Jan. 9.
Other legal matters
Federal investigators and Mennonite Church USA officials are both interested in finances regarding the Epefanios and the school.
“In the past two years, Thane Epfanio passed $1.6 million through the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas,” said Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency. “That is what was testified in open court [on Sept. 30] by the investigator from the office of the inspector general.
“The investigator did not specify — didn’t say anything else — and it wasn’t a situation in which our lawyers could be asking questions.”
He added that MEA and MC USA have no way of evaluating whether any of the $1.6 million could have come from HMS accounts or donations because they have not been able to access financial reports for such a long time.
In a legal situation separate from the Social Security fraud allegations and FBI investigation, MC USA filed a lawsuit on Sept. 14, 2015, in Navajo County (Ariz.) Superior Court asking that the school board be evicted from the property. MC USA claims the school sits on land deeded to it. The lawsuit’s goal is to allow MEA to review financial documents that the school board will not share with MC USA.
MC USA convened a task force in 2014 to address administrative and financial activities of HMS after hearing concerns for about two years.
Romero said a judge heard oral arguments on Dec. 15 and will make a ruling at a future date.
“We feel we have a strong case to win, and we are ready to move in to restore that education ministry as soon as we can, but right now we just don’t have access to the facility,” Romero said. “And we’re not going to force ourselves into it.”
Pennington, the Hopi attorney, said both the HMS board and MC USA want the tribe to get involved in the Navajo County court case.
“If we get involved it is not to support either side,” she said. “It would be to support reverting that land back to the Hopi tribe.”