Two weeks ago, Ravalli County Planning Board Chairman Jan Wisniewski ended a meeting between the county commission and representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes by observing that jails in Havre were filled with "drunk Indians." His sources for this information, he said, were law enforcement officials he had spoken to during a "fact-finding mission" across the state.
Wisniewski did not offer many numbers to back his claim, suggesting that his mission to find facts was not especially successful. He seems to have turned up racist pseudo-knowledge, which I suspect was in his possession before he left Darby. Regardless, tribal members were rightly incensed, and Ravalli Commissioner Suzy Foss said she was offended.
That's a moment that should give anyone pause. When Foss thinks you've said something awful, it is time to stop talking. The Ravalli County Commission has since drafted a letter of apology to the CSKT disclaiming Wisniewski's remarks, which is like the cast of Oliver! suggesting that you wash your face.
And yet Wisniewski remains unbowed. He insists that he was speaking as a private citizen when he made his comments, although that distinction is blurry for a county official at a county commission meeting. He invoked the First Amendment. The day before the commission sent its letter, Wisniewski's attorney wrote his own letter to the board, saying it "has neither the legal nor moral authority to apologize for the words of a private citizen of this county."
I am not a board-certified attorney, but it is my understanding that the laws of the United States do not specifically mention who can apologize for whom. As a supporter of the First Amendment, Wisniewski should welcome the robust competition between "Indians are drunk" and "Jan Wisniewski is a nimrod" in the marketplace of ideas. As for moral authority, the contest between Wisniewski and the Ravalli County Commission looks like a race to the bottom.
This whole kerfuffle started because the CSKT wants to place a 58-acre parcel of land in trust of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Known as Medicine Tree, the land holds historic and religious importance for the Salish and Kootenai tribes. It also annually generates $808 in property taxes for Ravalli County.
Those $808 are the basis for the county's objection to the tribes' plan to place Medicine Tree in trust. The commission also expressed concern that the CSKT might build a casino or a racetrack on their sacred land, but that's too mind-numbing an idea to even consider. Mostly, the commission is trying to get between the federal government and the CSKT regarding a piece of land the county doesn't own for the price of a transmission overhaul.
The last time Ravalli finances were in the news, the commission rejected $50,000 in Title X funding for the county's family planning clinic. Maybe they've become a little more pennywise since that decision, and they're trying to make up for it 1.6 percent at a time. Or maybe the commissioners are less concerned with governing Ravalli County than with making a show of themselves.
It's an easy show to follow. The bad guys are the federal government and maybe Indians. The good guys are the commissioners, who boldly stand for some vague idea of independence even if it means worsening the lives of everyone in the county.
Two months ago, when Foss was explaining why the commission decided to reject free money and close the county's only family planning clinic, she said she didn't want the federal government influencing Ravalli County. That specious argument came trotting out again in the debate over Medicine Tree.
Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht said he was "baffled" that CSKT would want to hand over administration of the land to the Bureau of Indian Affairs rather than local government. The tribe's acting land director explained that placing the land in trust with the BIA gave it more reliable protection. After all, the county and the tribes had clashed over the administration of Medicine Tree in the past.
Having heard this explanation, the commission reiterated its desire for $800, warned the Indians not to build a casino on their sacred land, made some racist remarks and called it a night. Is it any wonder the Salish and Kootenai tribes don't want these people in charge of their property?
Time and again, Ravalli officials have prioritized their ideology over their offices. They are more interested in politics than in government, and they have shown it in their inept administration of the county. Two weeks ago, they meddled in the tribe's legal and moral authority over a piece of land Ravalli County doesn't even own.
The Salish and Kootenai are lucky it doesn't. The Ravalli County Commission is a poor steward, and its planning board contains at least one unapologetic racist. I never thought I'd say this, but the tribes are better off with the BIA.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.