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The Gristle

A history of violence

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: A federal court last month delivered a small taste of the future of water rights.

The long-anticipated ruling on tribal fishing rights was handed down March 29 by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle is aimed at ensuring the tribes have fish to catch. The decision requires the state to immediately accelerate more than $2.4 billion in repairs to culverts that run beneath state roads and block access to some 1,000 miles of salmon habitat. Martinez ruled in 2007 that Washington was violating tribal treaty rights by failing to protect salmon runs. The rulings are predicated on the landmark 1974 Boldt decision, which upheld the rights of tribes to fish. The logical extension of the 1974 decision—often referred to as Boldt II—would ensure fish have sufficient water and habitat to allow tribes access to their rights.

“Our treaty-reserved right to harvest salmon also includes the right to have those salmon protected so that they are available for harvest, not only by the tribes, but by everyone who lives here,” said Billy Frank, Jr., Nisqually tribal member and chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Water law is complicated, a jumbled mix of common law and state statutes, but boils down to a few basic concepts. Foremost among them, a senior water right trumps and cannot be reduced by a junior or subordinate water right. A water right restricts a property right; without access to water, you cannot fully use the property. And the tribes hold a senior, sovereign right to water; and they hold treaty rights to property.

The conclusion is enough to stir fear and anger in the hearts of holders of junior and subordinate rights, particularly those living in rural areas. And fear and anger, precursors of hate, are the most powerful political motivators.

Over the weekend of April 6, the Northwest Round-Up Regional Educational Conference held a meeting at the Lakeway Inn in Bellingham,  sponsored by one of the foremost national anti-Indian organizations in the United States. Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, along with its affiliated foundation, is one of several anti-Indian organizations operating in Washington state. 

CERA vice chair Butch Cranford of Plymouth, Calif., and CERA board member Elaine Willman from Hobart, Wis., were featured speakers at the Bellingham conference on Federal Indian Policy Issues. In 2006, Willman, then living in Toppenish, Wash., was CERA president.

The essential topic of the conference was stripping the tribes of their federal treaty rights, a necessary precursor to seizing and plundering tribal property.

Local organizers for the anti-Indian conference were CERA board member Tom Williams, of Lynden, and Skip Richards, a Bellingham consultant with a 20-year history of anti-Indian organizing as both a property-rights advocate and a collaborator with Christian Patriot militias.

The event was heavily promoted through the Whatcom Tea Party mailing list and through rightwing talk radio programming on KGMI, and must therefore be understood for what it is: An organizing tool for the extreme political right in coming local elections. Roughly 70 county residents attended the conference.

Commenting on similar anti-Indian groups operating around the country, researcher Dean Chavers notes, “Labeling themselves as ‘citizen’s rights’ organizations, these groups barely conceal their hate for Indians in general and their scorn and derision for tribal councils. One of their main planks is trying to assert that they are not subject to the jurisdictions of tribes—even though their property may be in the middle of an Indian reservation.”

Indeed, many of the most virulent sponsors of anti-Indian rhetoric in Whatcom County are residents of Lummi fee lands, where they either own the land or hold 99-year leases on it, subject to Lummi senior water claims. A second tier are the absentee landowners who use the shore property as vacation homes. Next are third- and fourth-generation farmers with subordinate water claims, and the sport and commercial fishermen diminished by Boldt.

Dwarfing these groups, however, are thousands of potential voters activated through the politics of ressentiment, a blending resentment and hostility directed at the perceived cause of one’s frustration, attempting to assign a face of blame for one’s losses, made most plain in “white rage.” In Whatcom County, a pattern of heedlessness in the protection of resources and resource lands has created the zero-sum game of winners and losers, in which junior and subordinate rights are imperiled by senior rights. Wound up, these foot soldiers can be set loose to win elections.

Stoking and organizing hate in order to achieve political objectives is what effective operatives like Richards are all about.

In 1996, at the height of militia organizing in Whatcom County, Richards noted in an interview with High Country News that he needed to know only two things in politics, “Who to threaten and who to bribe.”

Through most of the ’90s, the extreme right in Whatcom County was organized through a rising tide of Christian Patriot militias, where Richards played an organizing role. The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the growing interest of federal authorities in the nexus of militias and domestic terrorism quieted the most vocal county elements; and in any case the local building industry and realtor associations were equipped to carry political water through most of the following decade. The reversal of their fortunes, both through the collapse of the housing market and court rulings restricting the political organizing of these associations, has perhaps supplanted greed with fear and anger as central organizing tools for the extreme right.

Fortunate for Richards, in Whatcom County all three in various blends always work.

Note: This column is humbly dedicated to the memory of researcher Paul de Armond who passed away this week from a long illness. Paul exhaustively detailed the activities of the far right and militias through his Public Good project. He will be missed.


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