WHITEFISH — Lauralee O’Neil earned a standing ovation at the start of Sunday’s “New Code of the West” conference.
The gathering, organized by O’Neil’s “This West is OUR West” organization and featuring Ammon Bundy and others at odds with federal policy, has drawn the ire of Montana human rights and conservation advocates in recent weeks. But on the conference sidelines, the Kalispell resident gave no apologies for the conference or the positions shared there.
“We are protecting our natural resources,” she said, saying she wanted to see federal lands transferred to the state. She also described a “need to light a fire under our legislators here in Montana.”
Several elected officials and candidates found the conference worth attending. They included: Montana state representatives Mark Noland and Kerry White, former Montana representatives and candidates Jerry O’Neil and Dan Skattum, Idaho state representatives Judy Boyle and Dorothy Moon, Washington State Representative Matt Shea, and Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker.
Decker described the conference as a learning opportunity. “I got an invite and I just decided to come and listen to what folks have to say,” he said.
“I didn’t even see a list of who the speakers are going to be” beforehand, he said. Looking over the program, he said that “the only one I’m familiar with is Elaine Willman. She’s written a couple of books that I’ve read … She’s raised some valid points about the relationship of tribal governments to county governments.” He identified tribal gambling operations as an issue of particular concern.
In 2016, Willman published a book entitled “Slumbering Thunder: A Primer for Confronting the Spread of Federal Indian Policy and Tribalism Overwhelming America.” Her group, the Citizens’ Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), maintains on its website that “we do not tolerate racial prejudice of any kind.” But it also holds that “Federal Indian Policy is unaccountable, destructive, racist, and unconstitutional. It is, therefore … CERA’s mission to ensure the equal protection of the law as guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution of the United States.”
Willman has previously remarked that “my own opinion is that tribal governments have outlived their usefulness. All citizens should be treated equally.” The Montana Human Rights Network, in a 13-page report on the event’s speakers, described her as “the most prominent anti-Indian activist in the Pacific Northwest.”
But Decker said in “the conversations I’ve had with her, I’ve never felt she was anti-Indian or racist.”
Willman herself didn’t shy away from the accusations when it was her turn to speak. “I want to thank, absolutely, the Montana Human Rights Network. The Montana Human Rights Network has been my biggest press agent for about 25 years.”
“When they quote me they’re generally quite accurate. They just call me bad names.”
Willman described federal Indian policy as a “great big hippopotamus sitting on the United States.” She cast tribal sovereignty, and tribes’ trust relationships with the federal government, as unconstitutional, opaque, and divisive.
Indian policy wasn’t the conference’s only topic. Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, focused on wildfires during his presentation.
After discussing wildfires’ environmental impacts and the negative effects of smoke, he predicted that under current U.S. Forest Service planning direction, “you’re going to see more forests, more smoke every summer, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be harvesting a lot of trees in our area.”
His presentation drew a question from Ammon Bundy, whose role in armed standoffs with federal authorities placed him in the national spotlight: “Do you see or do you not see that the reason why our lands are being destroyed in front of us is because of federal control?”
“I disagree with that,” he replied. “My premise is that the federal government are the managers and they’re not properly managed.”
Holding up a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, Bundy asked, “Where does it give the federal government our permission to manage our lands locally or our lands anywhere? Please tell me.”
“In my mind,” White replied, “the government derives its power from the people … if they don’t do it correctly it is the power of the people to change that.”
They continued to discuss the topic, and Bundy returned to that exchange in his closing remarks.
He said White “gave a great presentation with a ton of awesome information showing how the management has been poor … but yet in my opinion seemed to uphold this infringement upon jurisdiction, that it’s OK for federal governments to come into our states, and to control these lands.”
Several legal scholars have refuted the Bundys’ views on federal land issues. And while these speakers drew hearty applause inside Grouse Mountain Lodge’s conference center, the event had plenty of opponents gathered nearby.
At 10 a.m., a coalition of local organizations hosted an hour-long “Rally for Human Rights and Public Lands” in Depot Park. A few hundred residents listened to local civic and nonprofit leaders defend public lands and Native American rights.
Cherilyn DeVries, organizer and media relations official with Love Lives Here in the Flathead Vallley, kept the message positive. “They’re doing their thing today [at the conference], and we’ve got this great party going on,” she said. “Peace and acceptance are hallmarks of the Whitefish community.”
Back at the Lodge, one conference attendee and speaker after another denied they harbored any prejudice or violent intent. Mark Herr, president of the Center for Self Governance, charged the press with warping the narrative around their groups.
“I just find it interesting that we can’t have civil debate in this country anymore because the mainstream media, that’s supposed to report the truth without their bias, that we could have a civil discourse.
“But no,” he said, gesturing towards the reporters seated at the front of the room. “The articles that will come out tomorrow from this table will still use the phrase ‘domestic extremist,’ ‘domestic terrorist,’ ‘anti-government,’ anti- anti- everything.”
Conference guest Alan Wilson, of Kalispell, also took issue with the event’s characterization. “We need civil discourse,” he insisted. “You try to attend an event like this and you are labelled a racist, and it’s just not the case.”