The anti-Indian movement is thriving—and will continue to grow unless steps are taken—according to a new report by the Montana Human Rights Network.
And despite cries to the contrary from organizers, the movement is inherently racist, says network program director and co-founder Ken Toole. “Taken at face value,” Toole says, “the anti-Indian movement is a systematic effort to deny legally established rights to a group of people who are identified on the basis of their shared culture, history, religion and tradition. That makes it racist by definition.”
The Helena-based network is a nonprofit umbrella group organized in 1990 to combat racism and other forms of discrimination across the state. Nearly a dozen community-based organizations with a similar bent are now affiliated under its wing. The 50-page report, authored by Toole and Christine Kaufmann, the network’s research and policy director, chronicles the past 30 years of anti-tribal organizing in Montana. Included in the analysis are the Polson-based All Citizens Equal group, the Hardin-based Citizens Rights Organization, and the Cut Bank-based Concerned Landowners Association, as well as a number of national organizations that specialize in fighting tribal jurisdiction and other self-determination efforts. The report also notes that some anti-tribal groups, including the Citizen’s Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), which in the early 1990s was headquartered near Big Arm, are intricately tied with the anti-environmental Wise Use movement.
“Loose affiliation between anti-Indian groups and the religious right is also evident, primarily in the electoral arena and state Legislature,” the report says, adding that “despite their best efforts,” some anti-tribal organizers “often stumble into the overt white supremacist movement” while fighting tribal governments.
Most people on the front lines of anti-tribal organizing adamantly deny being racists. In fact, they often say their frustrations are primarily aimed at the federal government, which sets most American Indian policy. The anti-Indian arguments often take on a patriotic tone, the report notes, with detractors declaring that tribal governments are unconstitutional, undemocratic and unjust. “To be sure,” the report says, “there is a complex set of issues which is unique to the legal status of Indian tribes and other political jurisdictions. ... But the fact that the citizens of one of the governments are a cultural group, as well as a political entity, causes these controversies to be charged with racial animus.”
Toole and Kaufmann, who are both running as Democrats for state legislative seats in Helena, also contend the anti-federal claims are smoke screens for terminating reservations and stripping tribal governments of all authority.
“Like pepper in chili, racism makes the anti-Indian movement distinct from most political movements,” Toole says. “Racism is what makes it hot and what defines its character.”
Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, who is seeking re-election to a third term this year, is also skewered by the group for repeatedly making racist remarks, as well as for a string of other activities—including a 1997 proposal designed to strip away tribal civil authority over non-Indians—seen as being anti-Indian. “Burns’ shallow understanding of treaty rights is bound to lead to more controversy,” the report contends.
The network’s study begins in the early 1970s, when federal policies indeed shifted more power to tribes, largely through initiatives from Republican President Richard M. Nixon. Not coincidentally, anti-Indian sentiments across the nation rose with that tide.
In Montana, the report shows that the group Flathead Residents Earning Equality (FREE) surfaced in 1972 after the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes instated a $5 fee for tribal recreation permits. Charlo-area farmer Del Palmer, who is still a leader in statewide anti-Indian activities, served as the group’s first chairman. While FREE faded, a new group, Montanans Opposing Discrimination, or MOD, formed in its wake. The group’s leaders included Palmer, former Ronan City Attorney Lloyd Ingraham, and Kalispell radio broadcaster G. George Ostrom. The report states that Ostrom, a one-time executive director of MOD, later distanced himself from the organization because he considered some of its leaders to be too rabid.
“To some of them, the only good Indian was a dead Indian,” Ostrom is quoted as saying.
The network report also ties MOD, which later formed chapters in Missoula and Wolf Point, with the Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities, a Washington state group that’s been a primary player in national anti-sovereignty activities.
Faced with declining membership and a poor public persona in the early 1980s, MOD’s home chapter in Polson underwent another facelift and name change, this time emerging as ACE, or All Citizens Equal.
ACE, which is still closely aligned with some of the most conservative elected state and municipal officials on the Flathead Reservation, embroiled itself in a variety of new fights with the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which at the time were exerting further control over non-Indian anglers and bird hunters, among other measures. While ACE and other Montana organizations kept the pressure on at home, the report shows that former Big Arm resident Bill Covey, CERA’s first president, and other organizers targeted national legislation that dealt with Indian sovereignty issues. The report contends Montana organizers also tied into the Wise Use movement through Libby activist Bruce Vincent, a key leader in Alliance for America, a nationally known anti-environmental coalition. Also in the mix, the report says, is the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative advocacy firm that claims former U.S. Department of Interior head James Watt as its co-founder and first president.
Copies of the report can be obtained by contacting the network at (406) 442-5506, or by writing to: P.O. Box 1222, Helena, MT 59624.