Members of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance began their weekend conference in Riverton by encouraging local leaders to stand up to the EPA on a ruling that would make Riverton part of tribal lands.
The controversial group, which is critical of tribal sovereignty, also urged leaders to fight for the state’s constitutional rights in disputes with the tribes.
“Treatment as states is, in my opinion, absolutely unconstitutional,” CERA board member Elaine Willman said Friday, referring to tribal reservations. “It is a de facto creation of a state within a state. If I were going to be treated equally with someone here, we would be treated similarly without intruding on each other’s lives. Treatment as states replaces state authority, and that’s the conflict.”
The alliance, which some have labeled an anti-Native American hate group, opened the conference with a meeting for Wyoming government officials and the media at Riverton City Hall.
CERA board members, city managers from across the country and the group’s legal counsel decried what they consider federal overreach in federal Indian policy.
Lana Marcussen, CERA’s legal adviser, described at length the judicial cases involved in getting to today’s interpretation of federal policy. She said that under modern tribal policy, the United States government is as likely to discriminate against tribes as it is to support them.
“If they can use the tribal members, I don’t think the federal government has an honest bone in its body as far as wanting to protect native people,” Marcussen said. “I think they see this as a power game. I don’t think they care any more for Native Americans, except where it’s politically expedient, than they do for the rest of us.”
The group pointed to the story of Hobart, Wis., a community near Green Bay that faced a situation very similar to that of Riverton. Hobart challenged several moves by the Oneida tribe to purchase land that Rich Heidel, the village president, said was used in an effort to obstruct Hobart’s development.
“We have learned one very successful thing,” Heidel said. “If you can look the tribe in the eye and tell them that there are more important things to you and your government than their money or their service agreements, they don’t know how to act, and they immediately lose all leverage. That’s what we’ve done.”
Heidel said that doing so can lead to tension among constituents who might oppose the actions against the tribes, but he added that meetings like the one CERA is having in Riverton can provide a forum for better understanding of these situations.
Heidel blamed the actions of the Oneida on the federal government tack set by federal Indian policy.
“You have to get to these meetings to learn. The Oneida tribe has loved to play that game, and they do to this day. They learned it from the great white father in Washington, D.C. Until we as a country tell Washington that they can keep their money, we’re in for more trouble.”
Fremont County Commissioner Doug Thompson also spoke at the event. He said most of the conflict in the area is brought by unclear jurisdictions handed down by tribal law. He said jurisdictional issues are hard to work through and are the same on reservations across the country.
For Thompson, tribal relations require a great deal of pragmatism.
“I’m a pragmatist,” Thompson said. “History is nice. Pontificating is nice. I like to get to a solution. There’s a problem. Let’s address it and see if we can correct it.”
Thompson said he supported the forum that CERA provided to discuss tribal issues.
Wyoming gubernatorial candidate Taylor Haynes attended the meeting. Haynes said that as a staunch follower of the Constitution, he enjoyed the content of the meeting.
Haynes said he didn’t have any doubt about coming to the event after the Northern Arapaho tribe’s statement Thursday calling the group racist.
“I didn’t know anything about the group before I came, and that’s why I’m here,” Haynes said. “Right is right, and because of that, not knowing who these people are, I had a responsibility to be here firsthand to see who they are, and it was about the Constitution. It had nothing to do with race, strictly constitutional law.”
Officials from both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes attended the meeting, voicing their opinions on CERA’s take on Native American history.
The dispute over differing versions of the history led to a heightened argument between Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chairman Darwin St. Clair Jr. and Marcussen.
Although lively, the debate remained civil.
Northern Arapaho leaders released a statement Thursday asking tribal members to practice restraint in dealing with CERA members over the weekend.
Northern Arapaho Business Council member Dean Goggles voiced the tribe’s concern, calling the group’s ideas racist in a Thursday statement to the Star-Tribune.
St. Clair said the argument is representative of the fundamental differences of opinion at the heart of the dispute. He said expressing different opinions is essential to moving forward in solving the boundary dispute.
“I know not everyone has read up on Indian law,” he said. “I hope that people who are presenting this information are presenting it in the right context. A lot of times, especially with legal opinions, you can read it however you would like in your interpretation. As humans we may have different interpretations, and that’s OK, too, but that’s where the question lies.”
For CERA members, the dispute centers on one point: protecting the Constitution.
“Our enemy is the federal government, in terms of being able to overreach like this,” Marcussen said.
The group’s conference continues Saturday and Sunday at the Fremont County Fairgrounds. Both sessions begin at 9 a.m.
Speakers will focus on what the group considers federal overreach in water issues, land use and tribal issues.