Roland Morris, an enrolled Chippewa Indian, is an unlikely opponent of tribal sovereignty.
But the Ronan resident and his non-Indian wife, Lisa, are leading the charge to keep the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes from managing the National Bison Range and the Ninepipe and Pablo national wildlife refuges, all now run by the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Morrises are no newcomers. For years they have been leaders in the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), an umbrella group that monitors and challenges American Indian jurisdiction across the country.
When the Salish and Kootenai tribes first floated a plan in 1994 to manage the Bison Range and other Flathead Reservation refuges under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Morrises helped organize efforts through CERA and another dissident group, the Polson-based All Citizens Equal (ACE), to successfully shelve the move. Also joining in the opposition chorus was U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT).
In recent months, Salish and Kootenai leaders have repackaged the range-and-refuge proposal, and a new campaign is under way to again seek agency and congressional approval for the most extensive contract of its kind in the nation. On the other side, opponents are again rallying forces to keep range and refuge management solely under federal control.
This time, says Burns spokesman J.P. Donovan, the senator is not taking sides. He just wants the contracting talks to be open.
“He wants this to be vetted in the public process—no behind-the-scenes, closed-door meetings,” Donovan says.
So far, negotiations have been private, despite the fact that Burns chairs the Senate Appropriation Committee’s dollar-wielding Interior subcommittee. A draft agreement is expected to be ready for public review by the end of June.
While at least a portion of the debate involves legitimate discussion of transfer details, some of the most vehement detractors maintain that the Salish and Kootenai, despite their solid record of contracting and running a host of other federal programs, are incapable of managing the refuges. Some even argue that the tribes might try to impose pagan religion on Christian schoolchildren visiting on tours.
The Morrises, among others, argue that tribes shouldn’t be given control over public property. They also contend that employment preferences the tribes eventually want to instate at the Flathead properties are misguided.
“Tribal preference in hiring will be the standard and racial discrimination in hiring will occur on federal land with federal dollars,” the Morrises warn. Tribal representatives counter that they have no plans to get rid of any current non-Indian staff. They also note that in any case, the Bison Range will remain in federal ownership.
ACE and CERA have long conspired against tribal efforts to use federal laws and policies, as well as favorable court rulings, to their full advantage.
According to internal documents and a 2000 Montana Human Rights Network report, “Drumming Up Resentment: The Anti-Indian Movement in Montana,” ACE’s history spans back to 1972, when Charlo farmer Del Palmer and others formed Flathead Residents Earning Equality, or FREE.
Palmer, who frequently spouts anti-Indian rhetoric reminiscent of the pre-Civil Rights era, later became infamous for his repeated refusals to buy a state-tribal hunting permit before shooting pheasants on his reservation property.
“The ultimate solution is termination of the reservation and destruction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” he said in one interview. “The time’s coming that we’re going to have black this and black that and Indian this and Indian that in government. What would happen if our next governor was an Indian? We’d all be down the drain, I tell you.”
FREE’s main gripe in the 1970s was a $5 non-Indian recreation permit required by the tribes. Soon after, the group began lobbying for the dismantling of federal treaties. In an ironic attempt to become more palatable, the group’s name was later changed to Montanans Opposing Discrimination, or MOD. In 1983, Kalispell media gadfly George G. Ostrom was hired as MOD’s first executive director. A short time later, the group changed its name to All Citizens Equal.
CERA was also gaining members and clout in the 1980s, in part because of the efforts of former Flathead Reservation resident and retired U.S. Forest Service official Bill Covey. In time, the group, now based in Ronan, became one of the largest anti-sovereignty coalitions in the country.
Covey was president of ACE’s board of directors in 1989, but left the leadership post after it was revealed that several of the group’s adherents had close ties to the white-supremacist movement. The group suffered another blow when ACE President David Lister, who succeeded Covey at the helm, committed suicide.
ACE later expanded its influence with the election of state Rep. Rick Jore, an ultra-right Charlo Republican who later joined the Constitution Party because he found Montana Republicans too liberal.
Bob Larsson, a St. Ignatius resident and founder of the Pinehaven youth program, says he’s against the management transfer because of the precedent it would set. But he, like many critics, maintains that his opposition is not racially based.
“It is a national refuge, part of the national system,” Larsson says. “It’s working very well. It was not started like the BIA for Indian things. It’s public land. If it was a BIA project, it would be a whole different story.”
Larsson adds that he’s become dismayed with the tenor of the debate.
“I’m afraid there hasn’t been a whole lot of respect,” he laments. “I still believe the most important thing is to be respectful and to love each other. I think we all need to be one nation under God.”
Paul Hoffman, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, says the talks are moving forward, despite the sometimes-acidic dissent.
“We’re very interested in public comment,” Hoffman says. “But we are not conducting a poll. We will listen to concerns and incorporate them into the negotiations, but it’s not a matter of going through the mail and counting who is for and who is against.”