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On May 20th the Skagit County Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR) is hosting Elaine Willman in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. Titled a “Workshop on Water & Property Rights: Resolving Conflicts with a Tribal Government,” the event represents Willman’s ongoing efforts to promote anti-Indianism in Western Washington. The Skagit County Republican Party and KGMI’s Kris Halterman are also promoting the event.

Elaine Willman and the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance

Elaine Willman claims Cherokee ancestry and casts herself as a civil rights activist working on behalf of Native people. In addition to not being enrolled Cherokee, Willman’s claim to support the rights of tribal members could not be further from the truth.  Willman is a longtime leader of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), a Wisconsin-based group dedicated to terminating tribes and abrogating treaties between Indian Nations and the United States. Willman has written, “The tiresome myth that inherent tribal sovereignty is pre-Constitutional needs a little sunshine…anything ‘pre-Constitutional’ in this country was in fact, nullified by the U.S. Constitution.” Elsewhere, Willman asserts that “[A]ll American Indians have been citizens since 1924, and the federal government should no longer be honoring treaties with its own citizens.”

These statements are as false as they are racist. Tribal sovereignty is rooted in eons of tribal self-governance. The U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause refers to tribes in the same terms as foreign nations and the Supreme Court has recognized the independent political authority of tribes since at least 1832 (Worcestor v Georgia). In 1979 the Supreme Court wrote that, “A treaty, including one between the United States and an Indian tribe, is essentially a contract between two sovereign nations” (Washington v. Wash. State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel). Article VI of the Constitution states that “all treaties made…under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby.”  Tribal treaty rights play a critical role in protecting water quality and fisheries important to Native and non-Native communities in the Pacific Northwest.

CERA and Willman also tout conspiracy theories that foster bigotry toward indigenous peoples. At a 2013 CERA conference in Bellingham, Washington, Willman declared that “twenty-nine tribal governments…have hijacked Washington State…[and] are literally consuming and overpowering and now controlling that fixed land base of Washington State.” Willman continued that the “real Trail of Tears here for Washington state” consists of governors who “placed Washington State sovereignty subservient to the sovereignty of twenty-nine tribes here.” The Trail of Tears refers to the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from their homelands in Georgia and North Carolina in 1838 and 1839 – an atrocity in which some 4,000 tribal members died while being forcibly marched to Oklahoma during winter conditions.

Willman and CERA’s ideas and goals extend beyond anti-Indianism to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politics.  Willman baselessly claims that, “Congressional and judicial shelter of criminal conduct on Indian reservations …is creating a growing resentment for ‘special preferences’ and worse, contributing to an increase of illegal immigration and domestic terrorism.” Willman alleges a takeover of America through tribal alliances with “Middle Eastern tribalism” and a United Nations conspiracy.  Willman has allied with the John Birch Society, Tea Party activists, the American Lands Council (advocates of transferring federal lands to state control), and the secessionist State of Jefferson movement. Willman has editorialized in defense of the armed far-rightists who occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. And Willman has forged alliances with groups like the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights.

Glen Morgan and the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights

The Enumclaw, Washington-based Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR) is dedicated to gutting environmental regulations, including protections for water quality and fisheries habitat. For instance, CAPR frequently opposes measures in Critical Areas Ordinances (CAO) such as vegetated buffers used to protect rivers, streams and marine shorelines. While with the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, CAPR executive director Glen Morgan wrote that one-day people will “laugh at the silly buffers” and likened the CAO process to the “banality of evil” described by Hannah Arendt. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt analyzed Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann’s role in the genocide against European Jews. While Morgan concedes that “it may not be as extreme as Hannah’s writings,” he concluded that “Our government does not care about the little guy, and neither do the environmentalists’.”

Comparing local land use planning to the actions of Adolph Eichmann is wildly offensive. It belittles the atrocity of the Holocaust and demonizes tribal and non-tribal peoples who work to restore fisheries habitat and water quality. In addition, CAO tools like buffers perform critical functions, including capturing sediments that can cover salmon redds (egg nests) in streams; filtering contaminants; and maintaining low in-stream temperatures by preserving tree cover. The latter is especially important in the face of global climate change. Tribes in the region, including the Swinomish Tribe, have led efforts to restore fisheries habitat and address climate change.

CAPR’s Glen Morgan has built a close relationship with Willman and CERA. Morgan attended the 2013 CERA conference in Bellingham and Willman was listed as a speaker at CAPR events in 2016 in Spokane and March 2017 in Seattle. While at the Freedom Foundation Morgan opposed the inherent sovereign right of the Chehalis Tribe to develop tribal properties free from county taxation, casting tribal sovereignty on trust lands as “mini-Cayman Islands of Washington State [that] do not deserve to exist.”

Willman, CERA, Morgan and CAPR’s attacks on tribal sovereignty are an affront to the United States Constitution, a racist assault on Indian Nations, and a threat to the ecological health upon which water quality and fisheries in the Pacific Northwest depend. Tribal and non-tribal people alike must stand together to reject this racism and defend the community values we hold dear.

Chuck Tanner

Author Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner is an Advisory Board member and researcher for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. He lives in Washington State where he researches and works to counter white nationalism and the anti-Indian and other far right social movements.

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