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The New Indian Wars : A Growing National Movement Is Gunning for Tribal Treaties, Reservations and Rights.

<i> Margaret L. Knox lives in Missoula, Mont., and writes frequently about the environment and Indian politics for Mother Jones, the Smithsonian and Sierra. The Fund for Constitutional Government provided support for her research</i>

Delbert Palmer is rumbling his muddy, red Nissan across a stubble alfalfa field on what most people call the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Palmer prefers to call it the “former” Flathead Reservation and this piece of it, just plain “my” land--240 undulating acres his Dutch-English parents bought from homesteaders in 1943.

Nothing unusual about Palmer: he is one of 16,000 whites who live on this reservation, one of half a million who own property on Indian reservations nationwide. The attractions in this case are obvious. Western Montana’s glistening Mission Range dominates the view through Palmer’s spattered windshield; crenelated slices of rock, skirted in dark green timber, rake the sky.

But the 73-year-old Palmer doesn’t have the time or patience to ogle the scenery. Hunched over the wheel, a thick finger stabbing the air, he is making his favorite point as he brakes at the scene of a crime that has gained him considerable local notoriety. Here at the edge of one of his irrigation ditches, Palmer was arrested last year and the year before for hunting pheasants with no permit other than a license from the state of Montana.

What he didn’t have was a license from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who, by 1855 treaty with the United States of America, rule this reservation. In that seemingly minor distinction--who gets to issue a hunting license--lurks a world of animosity between Indians and the whites who live among them, and a growing threat to Indian tribes nationwide.

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“No Indian government is going to tell me what I can do on my own land or anywhere else,” Palmer says. “I don’t recognize that government’s authority at all.”

Talking this way--to game wardens, reporters and anyone else who will listen--has made Palmer the poster boy of an increasingly noisy movement whose aim is to strip American Indian tribes of the remnant autonomy granted them by the U.S. government. By illegally killing pheasants, Palmer registers a complaint against Indians having the right to manage wildlife on the reservation, and a general argument against any form of Indian authority. Here and on other reservations, like-minded whites want to take away Indians’ power to regulate water quality, gambling, schools, mineral rights--and every other matter of consequence.

The movement’s footprints are found all over the country in the form of legal briefs and legislative measures. When whites and Indians argue over salmon in Washington, land in Maine, water in New Mexico or gambling in New York’s northern tier, there’s a national movement of whites in the background, bankrolling lawsuits, filing friend-of-the-court briefs or lobbying the legislature. When the Supreme Court rules that the Yakima of Washington have no right to regulate zoning on their reservation or that the Crow of Montana have no right to manage fishing on the Bighorn River, a national movement celebrates.

“You’ve got thousands of disputes involving Indian jurisdiction,” says a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs aide, who asked not to be identified. “Then you have these groups that put it all together and oppose the Indians on everything. It really prolongs the conflicts.”

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Although the rhetoric changes with each issue and audience, this movement’s acknowledged aim is to abolish Indian treaties, tribal governments and, for all practical purposes, the reservations themselves. With about 50 member organizations--at least one in most of the 33 states that have reservations--the movement has declared a new round of Indian Wars.

“Uncle Sam is giving America back to the Indians,” begins “220, Million CUSTERS,” the movement’s Bible, published 15 years ago. “This news should make Gen. Custer spin in his grave.” Author Bill Lowman, a commercial fisherman in Washington state, concludes that federal Indian policy “has evolved into a nationwide, sinister juggernaut, exacting from Americans sacrifices of property, money, rights and identity.”

Lucille Otter, an imposing elder of the Salish tribe, is the unofficial archivist of the movement’s activity on the Flathead. In her shingle cottage near Kicking Horse reservoir, she hauls out a cardboard box of press clippings and heaves it onto her kitchen table. “Look here,” she says, pulling out a yellowed page of newsprint dating from the Nixon Administration. The article shows a meeting hall packed with whites protesting the Flathead tribes’ attempt to sell tax-free cigarettes and deriding Nixon’s relatively benign policy toward Indians. (Nixon has a glowing reputation among Indian activists. His Administration created agencies to protect Indian rights, encouraged native economic development and returned to several Lower 48 and Alaska tribes lands that had been taken from them.)

Otter, 77, has fresh memories of the indignities Indians suffered here: Whites called her “squaw” at school and her grandmother lost land to the tax man because she didn’t understand private property and didn’t read or write English. To Otter, this new movement smacks of that age-old racism, but is scarier because she sees it becoming nationally organized. “They’re just plain anti-Indian,” she says angrily.

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In search of a name for the movement that both Otter and Palmer might accept, one could use “anti-sovereignty” because the idea of Indian sovereignty--Indian nations with their own governments and a measure of power independent of state, county and, in some cases, even federal authorities--is what most galls activists like Palmer. The movement has adopted a creative nomenclature designed to imply that the whole idea of tribal governments is inherently discriminatory; Palmer is on the board of a group called All Citizens Equal. North Dakota has the Committee for Equality. Wisconsin has Protect Americans’ Rights & Resources. Minnesota has Totally Equal Americans. And all of them belong to Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, an umbrella organization that was based, until recently, on the Flathead.

That a network of whites would adopt civil-rights language to strip power from a conquered racial minority makes for some ironic moments. At Palmer’s pheasant-hunting trial last year, in which he was acquitted, his attorney said, “This man is just like Rosa Parks.” Stifling a laugh, a lawyer for the tribe mumbled to his colleague: “If Palmer knew who Rosa Parks is, he’d beat the shit out of his attorney.”

ARTICLE SIX OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION CALLS TREATIES THE “SUPREME Law of the Land.” But when it comes to treaties with Indians, that notion has rarely prevailed.

By the 1870s, tribal leaders had been cajoled, tricked or coerced into signing 370 treaties, ceding most of the continent to the United States. The treaties reserved for most of the tribes comparatively small parcels of land; the reservations were often rocky and non-productive, but at least they belonged to the tribes. The treaties were clear about that. The Crow reservation in Montana, for example, was set aside in the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie “for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians”; non-Indians could not “pass over, settle upon, or reside in” the reservation. The treaty with the Navajos in 1868, which created the nation’s biggest reservation, was similar, as were the so-called Stevens treaties signed in the mid-1850s by the tribes of the northwest. A typical Stevens treaty, the Hellgate Treaty signed by the Flathead tribes in 1855, also reserves “the exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams running through or bordering said reservation.”

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The reservations were to be “dependent nations,” as the Supreme Court has called them, free from all authority except that of the federal and tribal governments. The treaties acknowledged Indian rights off the reservations, as well. The Chippewa, for instance, were granted the “privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes” of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota ceded by the tribes.

But broken treaties litter this country’s history.

“Since the 1870s, every one of the treaties has been violated,” says Steve Robinson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 19 coast al tribes managing fisheries and negotiating and fighting court battles against Washington state.

Every tribe has a story to tell, an injustice to redress. But if any one broken promise can be blamed for the latest wave of hostilities, it is the “allotment policy” of the late 1800s. Congress, assuming that the process of “civilizing” Indians would soon be complete, invited settlers to homestead the Flathead and many other reservations. And on the Flathead later, the Department of Interior peddled “villa sites” by passing around a map labeled “Boundary of the Former Flathead Indian Reservation” (a copy of which Palmer still brandishes).

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During World War II, a Senate subcommittee argued strenuously for the complete abolition of the reservations, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed for what he called “termination” of the reservations and “relocation” of Indian families to the cities. In fact, it wasn’t until the Great Society years of the 1960s that the trend began to reverse. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity offered training to tribal leaders in politics, law and community development, giving them at least rudimentary tools to defend their treaties, and opening up the possibility that tribes might even try to regain lost rights.

By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the American Indian Movement was formed and the tribes came together for the first time in a series of symbolic gestures to dramatize their plight, occupying Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, seizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., and, in a demonstration that went awry, shooting it out with federal marshals at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The tribes began aggressively pursuing court cases and organized to strengthen their governments. The Indian Self-Determination Act and Education Assistance Act of 1975 gave Indians the right to take over from the Bureau of Indian Affairs the management of their schools, police and other functions.

The Indians have fought case by case for the rights they were promised by the government. As they’ve pressed their claims, they inevitably have met with resistance. Redressing a century of lax treaty enforcement has created genuine confusion over land ownership, land and resource use and all the other rights that the Indians think the treaties imply or spell out. For example, in a 1974 Washington case, a federal court judge affirmed the right of the tribes to take as much as half of the salmon catch each year from the state’s waters. But it didn’t address the tribes’ rights to shellfish and that issue is still being litigated. As the cases have come to trial, the courts generally find that the treaties must stand--although these solutions often involve compromise.

But even compromise is too much for some people. The new momentum for Indian rights has been the catalyst for the anti-sovereignty movement, the most extreme form of resistance to Indian claims. In “220, Million CUSTERS,” Lowman calls the Indian legal gains of the ‘70s “Teepee Gate"--a conspiracy of Indians and federal agents to grab all the land in the country. “There is one possibility--an alternative to allowing Teepee Gate to go full circle,” writes Lowman. “That is to stop it now.”

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At the local level, what Lowman was calling for had already begun. In 1969, for example, Del Palmer formed his first opposition group, Flathead Residents Earning Equality, or FREE, as a response to the Salish-Kootenai bid to regulate fishing on the reservation. FREE raised funds for defendants who refused to pay the $5 recreation fee. “FREE believes in freedom of access to the playgrounds of Montana . . . and to this end will continue to assist in the defense of any of its members who are arrested for the lack of a Tribal Permit,” wrote Palmer in a statement explaining his group. “In fact, FREE would welcome several arrests of its members, so that the issues at hand might be brought to court.” As the tribes became more sophisticated and demanded more and more rights, the opposition movement broadened its tactics, creating defense funds, filing lawsuits and drafting congressional bills aimed at abrogating treaties.

The anti-sovereignty movement usually frames its cause as individuals against regulation by tribal governments. But there are moneyed interests in the background, including real estate, agriculture, mining companies and commercial fishermen threatened by the tribes’ growing powers to control tribal resources. For example, a federal court recently upheld the Flathead tribes’ right to take fish forever from their streams by restricting white irrigators in how much water they could take for their crops. The Chippewa of Wisconsin likewise are fighting three mining projects on land they ceded to the U.S. government, arguing that the mining would harm the environment and thereby infringe their rights to hunt and fish.

Not surprisingly, then, the anti-sovereignty movement has gained friends in high places. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) made a name for himself as state attorney general by derisively calling Indians “super-citizens”; his constituents approved an unenforceable but inflammatory initiative opposing Indian fishing rights. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) calls Indian treaties “hideous” and “immoral.” After a 1987 federal court decision upholding Chippewa rights to fish for walleye pike in traditional fishing grounds, Sensenbrenner introduced a bill that would have abrogated two treaties signed in the 1800s. It never passed, although it had won the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s biggest farmers group.

“It’s hard to say who’s winning,” says Gary Rankel, a Bureau of Indian Affairs administrator in Washington, D.C., charged with protecting Indian treaty rights to hunt and fish. “We feel the pressure of the anti-Indian groups in this office; we’ve gotten as many as 589 letters a week (from them).”

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The anti-sovereignty groups claim about 500,000 supporters; Indians and civil-rights activists estimate that only about one-tenth that many people contribute time and money to the cause. It’s hard to keep count because the same people often form and re-form groups with new names.

“You’re going to see more of this,” says Henry Sockbeson, formerly of the Native American Rights Fund, about the anti-sovereignty movement. “As long as the Indians are downtrodden, racism is at a simmer point. But as soon as Indians successfully assert their rights, these people are screaming, ‘Why should they have something I can’t have?’ ”

As Lucille Otter puts it, “They were comfortable thinking of the poor half-wit Indian.” She pushes her glasses higher up and glares at a yellowed newspaper photograph of Delbert Palmer. “Now that we’re taking control of our assets they are just in shock.”

IT’S NO COINCIDENCE THAT THE NATIONAL ANTI-SOVEREIGNTY MOVEMENT is so strong on the Flathead reservation; it has a particularly powerful tribal government. On some reservations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs still manages tribal wildlife, water quality, health clinics, police and courts; on the Flathead, the tribes contract to manage those federally funded programs, hiring their own police and doctors, for example, and running the profitable Kerr Dam, which generates hydroelectric power for the whole valley. More than $90 million a year pass through the coffers of the Salish and Kootenai tribes, whose people number fewer than 7,000.

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“The Flathead (reservation) has been outstanding,” says Raymond Cross, a Mandan-Hidatsa professor of Indian law and natural resources at the University of Montana School of Law and former lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo. “They’ve taken all the opportunities to create a vibrant economy and to employ tribal members. It’s a reservation that works.”

There’s also a lot to fight over on this “rez.” When the tribes of this area--Pend Oreilles as well as Kootenais and Salish (the latter known as the Flatheads because sign-language identified them by pressing the sides of the head with both hands)--signed the Treaty of Hellgate eight years before the Civil War, they gave up 21 million acres across Idaho, Montana and Canada and agreed to move together onto 1.25 million acres. The move was traumatic, prolonged and coercive, as the last nomadic Flathead bands were rounded up and marched to a hemmed-in, farming future. But the Flathead reservation happened to include half of Flathead Lake, the biggest natural body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, which adorns the reservation like a sapphire pendant. Sportsmen flock to the reservation for hunting and fishing, one reason wildlife management is at the center of the sovereignty controversy here. The Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives calls the Flathead reservation, with its federal funding in addition to its considerable resources, “the ultimate irony,” insisting, “something has got to give.”

Finally, the reservation has an alien problem that makes California’s look piddling: whites outnumber Indians here by more than 2-to-1. Many of the whites who live on and around the reservation are as poor and uncertain of their future as rural Americans anywhere. Del Palmer struggles as hard as any small-scale farmer, and the debris of his scraped-together livelihood--old ‘dozer parts and milking equipment among the ancient tractors in his yard--bear testimony to hard times. Walter Bresette, a Chippewa activist in Wisconsin, says the surge in anti-Indian sentiment nationwide comes as life grows harder in rural America.

“The mom ‘n’ pop stores are being shoved aside by McDonald’s and Wal-Mart,” says Bresette. “The profits are leaving town, and the only visible enemy is the Indian who gets to fish.” Individual tribal members often receive government housing and food packages their white neighbors don’t get. By treaty, many tribal members don’t have to buy state hunting and fishing permits even when they journey off the reservations, and are exempt, in some areas, from state bag limits and seasons. On the Flathead, tribal members also receive $400 payments three times a year, their share of tribal land leases, Kerr Dam profits and other projects. The Indians are exempt from state and local taxes, though they can vote the same as any other citizen in federal, state and local elections. (“Representation without taxation,” Palmer growls.) The percentage of Indians living below the poverty level is about twice as high as that of whites on the Flathead--32% as opposed to 16%. Regardless, lots of whites are just plain jealous.

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“I used to wash their jockstraps!” says John Mercer, referring to his days as sports team manager for Polson High School on the Flathead reservation. “And that guy I washed jockstraps for doesn’t have to pay to license his car. He doesn’t have to pay property tax on his house. And then the tribe turns around and governs whether or not non-tribal members,” he points at the white reporter, “can build a dock, hunt or fish, have gambling.” Mercer, 36, a reedy man in glasses who still looks 17, isn’t just some disgruntled white guy; he’s the Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, powerful enough to give the tribes grief on everything from fishing rights to redistricting.

“These folks are against any tribal controls,” Flathead tribal attorney Pat Smith says. “That means hunting and fishing, criminal jurisdiction over Indians, relicensing the dam, gaming, liquor licenses, really any tribal regulation you can think of.” Though he works for the Salish and Kootenai, Smith is an Assiniboine who has no braid and often wears conservative suits. He estimates that the anti-sovereignty groups weigh in on more than half the issues that occupy the tribes’ six lawyers--frequently trying to overturn established rights. This year alone, the tribes are being sued by white ranchers for the 20th time for control of water. They are negotiating with the state to reassume criminal jurisdiction of Indians charged with misdemeanors, a right the Indians fought hard to win in the legislature. And the largely white city of Polson seceded from the reservation--a symbolic gesture--when video gambling was closed down because the tribes and the state couldn’t come to a federally mandated agreement over control of the machines.

Smith spent more hours than he cares to think about this year working with the tribal government to rewrite the wildlife law so that hunters like Del Palmer won’t get acquitted again. Wildlife is understandably a flash point between Indians and whites. To the Indians, taking game from the woods and fish from the streams is the old way of life, spiritually charged and still an important source of food for many families. To the anti-sovereignty groups, Indian control of wildlife cuts right to the two-chambered heart of their resentment: “special privileges” for Indians and control over whites.

Smith pulls out an armload of files and heads off to yet another meeting. “Anybody hunting and fishing on the reservation now has to comply with the law and have a tribal permit,” he says. “There are no excuses left.”

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THE NEW INDIAN WARS ARE FULL OF LEGAL COMPLEXITIES, BUT THEY can also have a pretty simple subtext: racism. Although it’s the side the anti-sovereignty movement least likes showing the public, racial prejudice often slips into its rhetoric.

“Now don’t you make us out to be racists and extremists” is Del Palmer’s constant refrain. Yet at a public hearing on reservation wildlife in 1989, he ended a speech calling for “termination” of the reservation with an appeal from the gut: “The time’s coming that we’re going to have black this and black that and Indian this and Indian that in government,” the nearby Missoulian newspaper reported Palmer as saying. “What would happen if our next governor was an Indian? We’d all be down the drain, I’ll tell you.”

“This is a political struggle that the tribes present as racial,” says Rep. Mercer. On the other hand, last year he told Flathead tribal attorney Pat Smith, in a widely reported exchange: “Pat, your problem is, you don’t think like a white man.” (Mercer denies it, but later in the conversation says bitterly, “There will be more and more conflicts until Pat Smith starts to think like a white man, I guess.”)

Indian leaders who have struggled in the wake of broken treaties, stereotypes and discriminatory laws are incensed that their opponents, and often the local media, paint the conflicts as morally neutral. “They’re racists,” says Mickey Pablo, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, glaring irritably. He is sitting at his desk, a round-faced man with a big belly, hunkered behind a stack of zoning documents. “These issues have been argued again and again in the courts and instead of accepting what the law has to offer, they keep picking at everything. They’re just racists,” he says again, waving a hand dismissively. “If they don’t like living with Indians, why don’t they leave?”

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After a federal court in Wisconsin upheld Chippewa treaty rights to spearfish for walleye pike--a practice forbidden to whites--signs appeared throughout the state saying, “Save a Walleye, Spear a Pregnant Squaw.” A flyer circulated announcing “open season on Smokes”: It will be unlawful to “shoot any Smoke in a new undented car” or to “attract the attention of Smokes with food stamps or government checks.” 'Smokes” could be found, the pamphlet said, “close to welfare offices.”

Such naked racism is a public-relations problem for the anti-sovereignty movement. So this year, when a version of the walleye dispute moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, the anti-sovereignty movement changed its tactics. “It was handled poorly in Wisconsin,” says Bud Grant, the popular coach who took the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl four times and, in retirement, is leading the fight against Mille Lac Chippewa fishing claims. “We learned (from Wisconsin) what not to do. We’re not confrontational.” (This less-inflammatory approach worked. Despite energetic lobbying by activist Clyde Bellecourt of the American Indian Movement, Grant and the anglers and hunters who support him persuaded the legislature to reject a state-tribal agreement that would have allowed the tribe to harvest about half the walleye pike on a disputed lake.)

Along the shores of Flathead Lake, opulent vacation homes peer from private coves. Sails billow, weed-eaters buzz, a whiff of barbecue scents the air: wealthy white life on the “rez.” In one such retreat, near the resort town of Big Arm, a sprawling ranch house presides over an elegantly manicured lawn and a breathtaking view of Wild Horse Island. Del Palmer has brought a reporter here to meet with friends, and accusations of racism are very much on their minds.

“Guys like Palmer were being labeled anti-Indian racists and rednecks,” says Citizens Equal Rights Alliance co-founder Bill Covey, clapping a hand on Palmer’s shoulder as he explains one of the reasons for his own organization. A big American flag snaps in the breeze as the meeting’s host, John Cramer, comes down the lawn with a pitcher of lemonade and a tray of mint cookies. Covey and Cramer are both retired from administrative jobs in the U.S. Forest Service and banter easily while Palmer stares at his scarred, knobby hands.

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Even during this casual gathering, the division of labor in the movement is evident. Palmer is the foot soldier, a ground-level bundle of resentment weathered from farm work, dressed uncomfortably for town in blue serge pants and stiff black shoes. Covey and Cramer sport the uniform of leisure, striped pastel polo shirts stretched smooth over their bellies. Cramer is president of Palmer’s local group, All Citizens Equal (a 1,000-member successor to FREE), and booms with a loquacious Chamber-of-Commerce personality. And Covey is clearly the field marshal, smooth and articulate, a player on the national scene who knows the liabilities as well as the value of Palmer’s anger.

“There were so many people like Del,” Covey says of CERA’s founding convention in Wisconsin in 1988 after the spearfishing blowup. “Some hated Indians. But others were just honest people without representation. They needed support,” he says, clinking the ice in his glass and glancing at Palmer, who nods but says nothing. “They needed to know, when you’ve been called a racist in your own hometown for doing what’s right, you’re not alone.”

Palmer mutters, “An Indian is an Indian to me.” And Covey says, “Now, Del, you’re speaking for yourself.”

Euphemisms fly around the picnic table as the group struggles to define its “Indian problem” in terms of communism, dictatorship, apartheid, the Iron Curtain, the Buckskin Curtain, Palestinian zealots and Bosnia. “I thought the U.S. was about coming together,” says Cramer. “What we’re doing now is promoting another Yugoslavia.”

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Everybody has a story of injustice: the Indians can restrict Palmer’s irrigation water when the trout need it; Cramer has to seek permission from the tribe if he wants to lengthen his boat dock; Covey calls the new Two Eagle School, with its Indian-oriented curriculum, “segregationist.” (The Indians say educating both tribal members and whites about native culture and history is essential to reducing racial tensions.) And all of them resent that a white man has to buy a permit from Indians to hunt pheasants on his own land. Their conversation grinds down and into the lull, Palmer says of the tribes, “I don’t like their stinkin’ outfit.”

“Now wait a minute, Del,” Covey says, “you’re speaking for yourself again. We just don’t want to live under it.”

A small sailboat takes a tack in front of the lawn, close enough to touch with a long fishing pole, and it seems to dawn on Covey how odd it is to be complaining about hardship in such a setting. “If John Cramer has a nice view and a pretty nice place to live, so what?” he asks suddenly. “That’s not the issue. It’s the principle.”

IT’S WORTH MENTIONING that not every white person who lives on an Indian reservation resents tribal government. Mary Herak, the 48-year-old grandchild of immigrant Irish who homesteaded the Flathead Reservation, joined with several friends recently to form an organization of mostly whites who want to “identify and articulate the common ground.” She calls her group Neighbors; ACE calls them “lackeys” of the tribes.

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Neighbors’ basic premise, says Herak, is nothing more radical than recognizing the right of the tribes to govern themselves and honoring the treaty they made with the United States. In her view, the tribes are waging a lawful campaign. Herak talks about racist language and racist attitudes but tries not to label anyone as racist. “Tribal government wasn’t a force when we were growing up,” she says, and its emergence came as a shock. “I believe there’s tremendous pain in the non-Indian community in the sense of, ‘Where do we belong?’ ”

Another organization, the mixed-race Flathead Reservation Human Rights Group, sponsors “cultural diversity days” and monitors the activities of CERA and ACE. “We started the group because of the anti-Indian sentiment,” says chairwoman Cathy Billie, a white woman who moved to the Flathead with her Mississippi Choctaw husband. “These anti-Indian groups are influencing people. They’re running people for office. Sometimes we really feel besieged, but if we ignore them, it’ll just grow.”

Ignorance, in fact, is what some people feel is at the root of the hostilities. “Ninety-eight percent of the people in the U.S. don’t understand reservations,” says Lucille Otter, the Salish elder. “Even the white people living here don’t know a damn thing about tribal sovereignty, and those anti-Indian groups capitalize on it. It’s harder to be anti-Indian when you know the history.”

But to Palmer, it is precisely the idea of Indian sovereignty that rankles. Never mind that it is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution or that the so-called “special rights” Indians enjoy are compensation for the loss of the continent. Such arguments are dismissed by the movement as “ ‘Dances With Wolves’ sentimentality.”

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“You stole our land. You killed our buffalo. You owe it to us,” Palmer mimics in a nasal twang as he swings his Nissan onto the pavement, headed for home, a pink farmhouse with an American flag as big as Cramer’s. “You hear it all the time,” he says, shaking his head as though to scatter those ghosts. “Well, my great-great-great-grandfather might have done all that. But I don’t owe ‘em a thing.”


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