A conference Saturday in Whitefish featuring Ammon Bundy, who led two armed standoffs with federal authorities, has sparked a statewide ad campaign and plans for a counter event.
This West is OUR West, a group that describes Western states as “under siege from federal government over-reach, expansion of tribalism as a governing system…[and] international/global agendas” is hosting the all-day conference on these issues at the town’s Grouse Mountain Lodge.
Dubbed “A ‘New’ Code of the West,” the event’s organizers maintain it will be civil and peaceful. But a diverse group of nonprofits and elected leaders see trouble in the conference, and plan a counter-event nearby.
One of those leaders is Cherilyn DeVries, media relations officer and organizer with Love Lives Here in the Flathead Valley.
“The situation is really scary,” she said. “When you have violent extremists like Ammon Bundy coming to town, they’re not trying to bring people together, they’re trying to divide the community.”
Her group has been working closely with the Montana Human Rights Network, which has prepared a 13-page dossier on the event’s speakers. In addition to Bundy, “A ‘New’ Code of the West” will feature Citizens Equal Rights Alliance leader Elaine Willman; State Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman; Alex Newman, foreign correspondent for The New American, a publication of the John Birch Society; radio host Dan Happel; Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley; Custer Battlefield Museum founder and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Kortlander; and water rights attorney Norman Semanko.
The Human Rights Network’s report detailed these speakers’ links to anti-Indian groups and activities, conspiracy theories and militia movements. “Attendees will be encouraged to manufacture controversy and pick fights with both federal and tribal governments using inaccurate history and false legal theories,” it predicted.
In an email, This West is OUR West president, website administrator and conference coordinator Lauralee O’Neil pushed back against these criticisms, calling the report an “onerous denigration.”
“Our event is in no way advocating or supporting an extremist, violent, anti-government, anti-Indian agenda. I have great respect for our country’s Constitution and am exercising my First Amendment right peaceably to assemble and promote civil dialogue,” she wrote.
White, the Bozeman legislator, said he had been contacted by the event’s organizers several months ago, before he was aware of its theme or any other speakers. He said he plans to give a presentation he’s given previously on the negative health effects of wildfire smoke.
White took issue with the Human Rights Network’s description of him as pushing conspiracy theory-based, anti-environmental views. “That information is completely false and really doesn’t even warrant a response from me in my view,” he said.
But other Montana residents see cause for concern in the event. On September 27, several state and local elected leaders and community members signed a statement denouncing the conference.
One of them, former Montana Senate President and Secretary of State Bob Brown, took particular issue with the Bundys’ activities. A long-running dispute over cattle grazing fees spurred an armed standoff with federal agents at the Bundys' Nevada ranch in 2014. Two years later, they occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
“I found those things disgusting,” said Brown, a Republican and Whitefish resident. “I think people ought to pay their taxes. They certainly shouldn’t occupy federal property.”
State Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, commended the Human Rights Network for addressing the activities of Elaine Willman and the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, which the report described as “the largest anti-Indian group in the country.”
Morigeau, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who stressed that his comments were his own, said, “I think we’ve identified them for who they are and what they are, and as long as they’re around in Montana trying to, in my opinion, create this xenophobic, hateful messaging about Indian tribes ... we’re going to keep an eye on them.
“I think the majority of Montanans ... understand that tribes are woven into the fabric of the state of Montana, and there’s a small group of people who are vocal; they push this fear-mongering, hate-filled agenda,” he said.
The Montana Wilderness Association has also been vocal in its criticism. This week, it’s taking out full-page ads in several Montana newspapers (including the Missoulian) calling on Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to condemn the conference.
“All of the speakers and folks who are at the event have this ideology that is very extreme and is about public lands transfer and an anti-government agenda, so it certainly connects to our mission of public lands and protecting wild lands,” said Amy Robinson, conservation director with the Wilderness Association. As of Monday afternoon, she said that the group had not received a response from Zinke.
In addition to these figures, Montana Human Rights Network co-director Rachel Carroll Rivas, former state legislator and Crow tribal member Carolyn Pease Lopez, Whitefish city councilman Richard Hildner and Whitefish resident and public lands advocate Jan Metzmaker signed the statement.
The conference’s opponents plan to host a counter-event called “Montana Undivided: A Rally for Human Rights and Public Lands” from 10 to 11 a.m. at Depot Park in Whitefish.
“We wanted to make clear that we don’t want anybody down at the venue protesting or anything like that,” said Love Lives Here’s DeVries.
So far, she said, local sentiment is heavily against the conference. “More than anything, we want the event in Depot Park to show the people who are being targeted by this kind of rhetoric, like Native American Indian community members, that they are not alone.
"We want them to see that people in Whitefish are not going to look the other way when extremists promote discrimination.”