A Special Report by Red Line Salish Sea and IREHR
By Michelle Vendiola, Michael Vendiola, and Chuck Tanner
Outside Rally Offers Lessons on Tribal Sovereignty, Inside Elaine Willman Offers Same Tired Anti-Indianism.
“As you can see outside, Elaine’s reputation precedes her.”
With these words, Skagit County Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR) President Gary Haglund kicked off a May 20th speaking appearance by anti-Indian leader Elaine Willman in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. “Reputation” referenced Willman’s well-documented commitment to attacking the inherent sovereignty of Indian Nations. Willman is a longtime leader of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), a Wisconsin-based group that seeks to terminate tribes and abrogate treaties between Indian Nations and the United States.
“Outside” referred to the 30-plus Native and non-Native people gathered to protest the anti-Indian event. The rally to Stand Up Against Hate! was organized by Red Line Salish Sea (formerly the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition) and quickly turned into a lesson in tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.
Participants traveled from Bellingham, Olympia, Seattle and Anacortes, and their ranks included members of the Swinomish and Upper Skagit Tribes, Canadian First Nations, and others. Tribal rights supporters held signs emblazoned “Respect Native Rights,” “Honor the Treaties,” “#NoDAPL” (Dakota Access Pipeline) and “Respect Mother Earth” – echoing the themes of tribal-led campaigns to halt hazardous oil and gas projects from Standing Rock Sioux country and across the great plains, to Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, to the lands of the Lummi (near Bellingham) and Puyallup Nations.
A good part of the rally was dedicated to a read-in featuring the works of the late Dr. Vine Deloria Jr., a noted scholar, and Standing Rock Sioux tribal member. Deloria authored some of the earliest writings on tribal self-determination, works that continue to be widely referenced. The inspiration to hold the read-in came when some members of Red Line Salish Sea attended the first day of the 12th Annual Vine Deloria Jr. Symposium hosted by Northwest Indian College the day prior. Members agreed to share Deloria’s work at the rally since they were not able to attend the second day of the symposium as both events occurred at the same time. Deloria wrote extensively on the challenges tribes face when factions of American society try to ignore, diminish, or eradicate tribal knowledge and treaty obligations.
“Sharing Vine’s work was very appropriate in illuminating and shining a spotlight on Elaine Willman’s blatant attacks on tribal communities,” said Michael Vendiola, member of Red Line Salish Sea and a Swinomish tribal member, “Willman makes a living by dividing communities and putting tribal and non-tribal communities at odds with one another.”
During the anti-Indian meeting’s lunch-break, some from outside moved inside, taking their message to the 70-plus people at the CAPR-sponsored event. Tribal members spoke eloquently on the struggle to decolonize the United States from profit-driven mindsets and practices that have devastated Indian Country and ecosystems across the continent. Michelle Vendiola (Walker River Paiute) of Red Line Salish Sea was invited in and addressed attendees. One audience member queried, “I don’t know where casinos fit into this…I want to know how casinos fit into that.”
In response, Vendiola offered a tutorial on tribal sovereignty, “what I’d like to answer is that the federal treaty rights are the supreme law of the land” and tribes have a “nations’ status to make their own rules, to make their own governments, have their own policies, and to develop their own economic base. And that means to grow their own economy, and whatever that looks like, casinos, fishing or anything like that, and so that is a basic answer to your question.”
Vendiola drew hostility from the audience when she brought the focus back to the issue at hand – the attack on treaty rights underway in the room. “I’ve read up on Elaine [Willman] and read up on the…organization called CERA,” she said. “And that organization, as you all are familiar with, has gone across the nation to try to circumvent tribal sovereignty and tribal treaty rights. And not only that, to give a fear factor that those are going against your own rights when in fact they don’t go against your rights. [From crowd: “They do! They do!”]. And I think the fear factor creates a division within our communities…[O]ur tribal communities are considered nations, we have treaties, and it’s honoring the Constitution to recognize that treaties are the supreme law of the land. If you’re a patriot and you believe in this country then you believe in the Constitution.”
Elaine Willman (Left) gets a lesson in decolonization.
Vendiola then brought the issue to the local Republican Party’s support for Willman and the CAPR event. “The endorsers of this event I know of are [NW] Liberty Road [the talk show of CERA ally Kris Halterman] and the Republican party” [From crowd: “No! No! No!”, one person shouting “I’m a Republican”].
As Willman moved to take the microphone from Vendiola, the Red Line Salish Sea leader continued, “The Republican Party had a fundraiser and they brought Elaine, they brought you [directed toward Willman] to speak at their fundraiser. And I’m just asking the question, why did they do that? What was their purpose? What’s the political agenda for bringing someone that is so anti-tribal people?” As men moved forward to take the mike, Vendiola finished, “Who does the Republican party work for? Does the Republican Party work for corporations? They are working on behalf of the oil companies!”
Despite the audience reaction, Vendiola’s questions were clearly on-point. The Skagit County Republican Party went beyond endorsing Willman’s talk to promoting it, posting the Skagit CAPR even flyer on its official website. The party had also announced Elaine Willman as a “special guest speaker” at a May 6, 2017, Lincoln/Reagan Day Dinner.
Promoting Willman continued a Skagit GOP tradition of anti-Indianism. In a 2012 interview, then county party executive committee member Bob Eberle endorsed precinct committeeman John Fleming’s call for the federal government to terminate tribal governments. Fleming succeeded in getting a similar resolution passed at the 2000 state Republican Party convention. If tribes resisted, Fleming told reporters, “then the U.S. Army and the Air Force and the Marines and the National Guard are going to have to battle back.” Despite his endorsement of termination, Eberle remains a Skagit County GOP committeeman.
Elaine Willman’s Tired, Racist, Anti-Indianism
Early in her presentation, Elaine Willman told attendees that “I hope we have some of our Skagit County residents here that disagree with me. I absolutely invite disagreement.” At other points in the day, Willman proclaimed her own commitment to free speech. During the lunch break, Willman even provided space for a tribal member to sit at the front of the room for a dialogue. However, this aspect of the meeting offered a glimpse into the paradox of free speech as practiced by organized racists and bigots, something seen across the spectrum from Tea Party and anti-Indian groups to white nationalists of the Klan and alt-right variety – namely, that such groups espouse a commitment to free speech rights as one tool in a kit built to strip communities of color and others of basic human and civil rights – in this case, the inherent tribal sovereignty and treaty rights of indigenous nations.
In fact, the meeting inside offered a starkly different lesson than that outside – Willman giving a tutorial in the anti-Indian movement’s drive to gut tribal rights, coerce assimilation, and spew anti-Indian bigotry. The stark expression of the attack on tribal rights surfaced in an exchange between Willman and an unidentified audience member:
Male audience member: “I know this is a terrible, radical idea. But why don’t we just abrogate all the Indian treaties and allow them to incorporate as corporations?”
Elaine Willman: “In my mind, they’re already abrogated, but they keep pushing them out. But, yeah, that’s a good idea.”
The event also made clear that Willman’s vision, as with that of CERA, undergirds a drive toward the coerced assimilation of Indian Nations. A handout distributed by Willman displayed deep disdain for even the idea of tribal nationhood, including a section titled “Indian ‘Nations’ – and other sham terms.” The document lists a “flood of new terminology” prompted by the “interaction of the United Nations and Indian tribes” that are “intentionally repulsive to the existence of the United States and the U.S. Constitution.” Among these terms were “Aboriginal Rights,” “Time Immemorial,” and “Pre-European” – all terms referencing the long-standing existence of tribes as self-governing nations. In Willman’s view, “Anything pre-constitutional or extra-constitutional is unconstitutional.”
During her presentation, Willman drove home the logic of such language. She castigated the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act for “closing back up what was going to go away forever – which is reservations and tribal governments. They were intended to go away forever by the turn of the century,” as a result of the 19th century Dawes and homestead acts. “We were supposed to be done with all this, and everyone was just American by 1924 when all American Indians were made citizens.” This passage reflects the common anti-Indian tact of citing colonizing actions from the past to justify an ongoing assault on tribes.
Willman’s handout echoed this theme, declaring that “Ten 2017 Resolutions for One America” should include subjecting tribes to state taxation; “transitioning tribal governments to non-profit corporations with no jurisdictional authority and accountability to host states;” and that “tribal constitutions will be repealed within one year.” Another stated that “The only governing or jurisdictional authority conducted in America will be…local, state and federal” – that is, forced assimilation.
Willman’s reference to the United Nations displayed her continued promotion of far right conspiracy “theories” that place Indians in a nefarious global plot to destroy the United States. Willman cast the movement for decolonization – i.e., the liberation of Indian Nations from legal, political, cultural and economic relations with the United States that are colonial in nature – as a product of the “the big money, and the big anti-American global cabal…pressing forward.” She later cast the combination of the Indian Reorganization Act, the tribal recognition process, and the emergence of casinos as a tribal economic development tool, in the following terms:
“The policy and the strategy is perfect for marrying up with Agenda 21, marrying up with the One World Order…These tribes are the perfect tool for all the anti-American, all those adversaries of the United States who want to see the United States gone.”
Agenda 21 refers to wholly voluntary United Nations sustainability program. However, such ideas form a foundation of a far right anti-democratic nationalism that casts the Constitutionally-protected political activity of people who support environmental protections as a plot to “see the United States gone.”
Finally, Willman demonstrated that her oft-repeated claim to tribal ancestry is closely tied to her assimilationist goals, stating, “I am of Cherokee ancestry. My mother and grandmother were enrolled…I think we’re all part Cherokee. We’re all part something. But we’re all 100% American. And that’s what counts.” If this statement has a logic, it appears to be that there are no authentic Indians anymore, and therefore Indian Nations are not legitimate. Willman’s handout built on this theme, spouting the anti-Indian canard that tribes must adhere to Hollywood images of 19th century Indians in order to be legitimate:
“I’m not aware of any living Native Americans who are not currently assimilated. I don’t know an Indian that’s never been in a vehicle, used a telephone, television, enjoyed McDonalds, put quarters in a slot machine, or received high-tech medical services. By hey, tribes want their Old Life Ways back, their ‘aboriginal’ lands back. They want America’s yesterday, today and tomorrow…and 567 tribes are getting it done incrementally, and the process is accelerating every year.”
While the CAPR-sponsored event put all Indian Nations in its sights, particular animus was directed at the Swinomish Tribe, whose homelands lay partly in Skagit County. Willman attempted to pit the Swinomish against other tribes, declaring that “It would be lovely if the Swinomish would take the lesson from their neighboring tribes” – the latter cast as good, cooperative tribes in a classic, colonial, divide and conquer strategy. Willman continued, “Remember, we have 116,000 folks that live in Skagit County, and you will not be rolled over by 541, or a little short, fat guy who wears a cedar bark hat, unless you let’em.” This apparently refers – and offensively so – to the Swinomish Tribe and its Chairman, Brian Cladoosby, who is also the President of the National Congress of American Indians.
Interestingly, Willman continues to distance herself from the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, an organization she once chaired and on whose board she still appears to serve. Repeating an assertion she made to the John Birch Society’s New American in 2016, Willman stated that,
“I do not speak for Citizens Equal Rights Alliance and I haven’t in years. I have freed myself to speak for myself as one single American citizen. What you’re hearing from me are just my views…I belong to several organizations, I don’t speak for any of them…but I want you to understand, Citizens Equal Rights Alliance…I’m truly proud of them…I admire them.”
Willman’s handout also lacked mention of the anti-Indian group.
Finally, the meeting demonstrated Willman’s participation – like CERA’s – in a broader far-right movement that threatens communities beyond Indian Country. In addition to allying with the anti-environmental Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, Willman introduced a special guest, announcing that “years ago I met one of my first heroes out here…that’s John Koster.”
Currently serving as a Washington State Representative from the 39th District, Koster (R-Arlington) received strong applause at several points in the day. Willman stated that she met and came to admire Koster around 2003 during the “fight to contain and constrain Quil Ceda Village,” a development and borough established in 2001 by the Tulalip Tribe. As Willman described, Koster was one of the “go-to people” for community members who opposed Quil Ceda. In addition to apparently being a fan of anti-Indian events, Koster is a Tea Party supporter who has opposed LGBT civil rights and abortion rights for women who are victims of rape and incest. In the 1990s, Koster flirted with far right county secession movements.
Wilman’s handout demonstrated that the anti-Indian movement’s assimilationist thrust also targets communities beyond Indian Country. Mimicking the slogan of racist President Donald Trump, one section was titled “Ten 2017 Resolutions for ONE America…Make American Great Again!” Among these “resolutions” were “All citizens of the United States are Americans – no-longer race-based, hyphenated-Americans,” “U.S. Census Bureau eliminates ethnic-race-based collection data (sic),” and “English will be established by Congress as the official language of the United States.”
In the end, Skagit County CAPR’s event again taught us that Elaine Willman and her supporters are as dedicated as ever to an assault on the basic rights of Indian nations.
The “outside” rally taught an altogether different lesson: that tribal sovereignty, and the spirit of Vine Deloria Jr., live in organizations like Red Line Salish Sea.
The authors would like to thank Evergreen State College Professor Zoltan Grossman and Whatcom County-based citizen researcher S.J. Robson for their contributions to the research that made this article possible.