REPORT FROM KEWEENAW BAY STAND-OFF|
By Debra McNutt and Zoltán Grossman,
Midwest Treaty Network
Feel free to reprint............Emergency donations needed
Nov. 1997 - Update
Keweenaw Bay Chairman Fred Dakota resigned in July 1997, and was
sentenced to two and one half years for bribery and tax fraud on
November 5. The struggle is not over for Fight For Justice, however,
as the tribal government is still largely in the hands of Dakota's
followers. The Fight For Justice web page has move to: http://mindit.netmind.com/go/1/11657540/1286823.
Dec. 1996 - The situation at Keweenaw Bay again deteriorated on the 17th, as police attacked the Assinins church compound ...
... June 1996
In the first week of June, we were present to witness the crisis at the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, an Ojibwa (Chippewa) reservation next to Baraga in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Since August of last year, Ojibwa members of Fight for Justice (FFJ) opposing the tribal government of Chairman Fred Dakota have been occupying the tribal headquarters building. FFJ members also took sanctuary in a Catholic church compound adjacent to the tribal headquarters.
The action took place three days after the tribal council took steps to nullify a tribal election and remove 202 people from the tribal rolls. The tribe had about 2400 members, about half of whom live on the reservation, and the community has been reeling from the disenrollments, the occupation, and resultant threats and violence.
The Michigan and Wisconsin media have focussed on the sensational aspects of the dispute -- including drive-by shootings, riot police, tear-gas, rock-throwing, and arson in or around the compound-and have largely portrayed the conflict as a purely internal dispute over gaming dollars. Mostly lost in the coverage has been the more complex background of the stand-off, which centers on Ojibwa residents, but also involves white tribal police, white private security guards, white judicial officials, and possibly white organized crime figures. Far from being just another internal dispute over casino profits, the stand-off has the feel of a "Third World" conflict where dissidents confront a government that they say has used authoritarian means to hold onto power.
"Whatever the internal issues are among the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa," said Midwest Treaty Network spokesperson Walter Bresette, a Red Cliff Ojibwa tribal member, "they are best resolved through negotiation, not violence or harassment. We oppose any effort to increase the level of tension." On May 30, the day after riot police launched a tear-gas assault on the FFJ compound, Bresette called for an immediate truce, and met with representatives of the two sides in the dispute.
The current dispute began in November 1994, when pro-Dakota candidates were defeated in elections for four tribal council seats and tribal judge. (The candidate for judge was the Chairman's son Bradley, who tied with his opponent.) Voters also overwhelmingly defeated Dakota's proposal for a new local gaming corporation.
In early 1995, the Dakota government hired a Houghton-based firm to review tribal membership rolls. Tribal enrollment enables a tribal member to vote, and gain access to tribal programs and services. The criteria for tribal membership is normally the identity of parents, or blood percentage. The Keweenaw Bay tribal government added the criteria of actually being born on the reservation.
On the basis of the review, the Tribal Council -- still with a pro-Dakota majority -- took steps to remove 202 tribal members off the rolls. The council also took steps to nullify the 1994 election, and held another election that pro-Dakota incumbents narrowly won.
The council formally nullified the 1994 election results on August 18, 1995. An August 21 meeting by 200-300 FFJ members led to the takeover of part of the tribal headquarters. Over a period of days, more support was shown by young men, young women, and elders from the community, and the area of control expanded to include the entire building and grounds. Warrants were issued against over 20 individuals -- essentially isolating them within the compound -- and the group settled in for a long stay.
In some ways, the Keweenaw Bay crisis resembles a miniature version of current conflicts in Nigeria and Burma, or the uprising ten years ago against the Marcos regime in the Philippines. In all three cases, an election was been held that unseated members of the ruling party, but the government refused to abide by the results and moved against its opponents. In these countries, the government crackdowns included mass arrests and executions. But even there, the government did not withdraw citizenship from any of its opponents.
The FFJ-occupied compound is on a hill which overlooks Keweenaw Bay, just above Highway 41 on the Lake Superior shoreline. As you drive up the hill into the compound, you come to the "Bottom Gate," mostly blocked off with logs and other defensive barriers. On the south side of the hill is the large three-story brick building which served as tribal headquarters. Burned-out vehicles lay in front of the building. On the north side of the hill is the Holy Name Catholic Church, other church buildings, and an old one-room schoolhouse. FFJ members both occupy the tribal headquarters, and have sanctuary in the church buildings. At the top of the hill, along Mission Road, is the "Top Gate," also defended with logs and barbed wire barricades. Halfway up the hill is a huge silver church bell that would be rung to alert the community that an assault is underway or imminent.
The entire open area is no larger than three or four football fields. It is always alive with people -- including elders (some on crutches or in wheelchairs), and young children. Nearly all of the people in the compound are FFJ members from Keweenaw Bay. Recently, they have been joined by Ojibwa supporters from other reservations, and Witness for Nonviolence monitors.
Fred Dakota has been in power for about 22 years, taking into account a gap in the 1980s. Even some FFJ members have spoken well of his earlier years in office. Now, however, they see him as virtually a tool of outside gaming interests, including the International Gaming Management (IGM) firm, which has been accused by investigators of ties to organized crime. The key issue in the 1994 election was Dakota's proposal to form a new local gaming corporation allegedly linked to IGM. According to the Detroit Free Press (March 22, 1996) Dakota admitted to taking "consulting fees" from IGM, which the article stated totalled $40,000. A federal grand jury has been looking into the connections between Dakota, IGM, and racketeering practices, and is expected to soon hand down indictments.
Bresette sees the current troubles as "part of a pattern of destabilization" of reservations by outside forces, rather than a purely internal dispute. For Dakota, however, the issue is retaining power at all costs or, as he told the Marquette Mining Journal, "If it takes a body there will be a body," and "The only thing that is negotiable is how long the rope is." Dakota's backers see him as defending tribal sovereignty against outside efforts to take control the reservation economy.
(Note: Fred Dakota was indicted June 26 on multiple counts.)
Fight for Justice
FFJ's membership consists of many of the 202 disenrolled tribal members, as well as their supporters on the reservation. FFJ spokesperson Charles Loonsfoot, an elected tribal council member, depicts the dispute as one between Dakota and "the traditional people that are here." Some of the disenrolled members trace their ancestry in the area back over 400 years, yet have lost their access to tribal programs such as health care, housing, and education. Other FFJ supporters have been fired from their tribal jobs.
While some media reports imply that their main concern is access to gaming money, FFJ members remain adamant that their main issues are the restoration of democracy and preservation of their Native identity. A terminated tribal alcohol educator, Ginnyann Jermac, says. "If you take away our Indian blood, we have nothing. Keep your money, but don't take away our Indian blood."
For such a small reservation, many tribal police cars are visible around Keweenaw Bay. At least four tribal police officers sympathetic to FFJ -- or who have tried to steer a neutral course in the dispute -- have been laid off or transferred. They have been largely replaced with white police officers. The police are at all times dressed in a SWAT-type uniform, which consists of a black shirt, black pants tucked into black combat boots, black baseball-style caps, and black leather gloves.
For a time in late May, Dakota had the assistance of tribal police from Saginaw (Mt. Pleasant) and Lac Vieux Desert reservations. Other reservations have reportedly directed their police to withhold support. According to Associated Press, Dakota temporarily hired a SWAT team from Florida to assault the compound, but the plan fizzled due to disagreements over tactics.
More recently, Dakota has hired a private Upper Peninsula security firm called the Guardian Angels, not to be confused with the national organization of the same name. Made up of armed uniformed white men, the Guardian Angels guard Dakota's home, store, and other properties, and other tribal government leaders' homes. Their vehicles have also been seen driving by the compound gates, and FFJ members contend they are tied to incidents of semi-automatic gunfire and one explosion intended to frighten those in the compound. The Guardian Angels have also taken photos of FFJ members and Witnesses for Nonviolence.
Bresette compares the role of the Guardian Angels to that of paramilitary groups in El Salvador, the Philippines, or Northern Ireland. He also points to the example of the Guardians Of the Oglala Nation (GOON) Squad used by Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970's. Dakota replies that the Guardian Angels are needed to prevent incidents of vandalism and arson, and that FFJ leaders are themselves "thugs" and "criminals."
While the occupation of the tribal center continued through the intensely cold winter, few incidents occurred at the compound. However, FFJ members share how their family members were harassed, ticketed, and arrested in town. In late April, the situation became dramatically worse as Dakota reportedly put pressure on police captains to storm the compound. They finally did on May 29, launching tear gas canisters after a three-minute warning to disperse. The police (who did not wear gas masks and seemed untrained in gassing procedures) seemed taken aback when the canisters were thrown back, along with a barrage of bricks, bottles, and rocks. They withdrew before fire trucks and Guardian Angels could complete the planned eviction. According to media reports, FFJ supporters reportedly burned a Dakota truck rig in the compound to show they "mean business."
On June 3, an FFJ leader, Paul Halverson, turned himself in to tribal police to face charges stemming from the occupation. Halverson's June 5 tribal court arraignment was attended by family members, media, witnesses, two white police officers, two Indian officers, a white prosecutor, and a white judge. Halverson is a pipe carrier and has been a respected counselor at a drug and alcohol treatment center for the past five years. He explained that he had turned himself in so others in the compound would not be hurt on his behalf, and so he could be with his family. Judge Douglas Gurski asked for Halverson's opinions about the occupation and prospects for violence, and then slapped him with an $8,000 bond for two misdemeanors.
Also on June 3, violence flared again after police allegedly beat an FFJ supporter in town. Shortly afterward, a squad car came under a hail of rocks near the Top Gate. FFJ is prepared for another assault as Dakota grows more isolated.
On June 11, FFJ released audio and video tapes of former Guardian Angel Terence Moore, who said that Guardian Angels owner Pete Morin offered to pay him to conduct a drive-by shooting of the compound. Moore said that Morin "told me if I shot up the tribal center, it was $100 per bullet. There was a $500 bonus if a bullet hit somebody -- man, woman, or child, he didn't care." Moore also said that Morin put "his gun out the window, pointing it at all the kids who were coming off the hill, (saying) I'm going to shoot you. I'll kill all you motherfuckers." Moore also said that Moore offered him $50,000 to "shoot into Fred Dakota's car, and to make it look as though FFJ was responsible. Except Fred Dakota cannot be hit, 'cause he's the one who signs our paychecks and then we won't make the money."
PROSPECTS FOR RESOLUTION
The federal response to the situation has been mixed. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the Department of the Interior has maintained a hands-off attitude, telling Dakota it is his responsibility to maintain law enforcement, but not sending him reinforcements. In a letter dated January 27, 1995, Sault Ste. Marie Superintendent Anne Bolton had told Dakota that the Interior-approved tribal constitution had "no provisions for disenrollment due to error or fraudulent act nor are there any procedures to appeal denial of membership of disenrollment." A Utah tribal judge (brought in as a neutral third party) ruled against the disenrollments, but Dakota refused to implement the decision and was not contradicted by the BIA.
The Department of Justice has sent a rotating team of observers to Keweenaw Bay. One Justice official from Chicago, John Terrones, was among the crowd tear-gassed on May 29. (Ironically, the police had put away their rifles after spotting outside observers). Dakota has spoken with the officials, but they have been met with open hostility by some of his supporters in his office.
On June 5, U.S. Senator Carl Levin and Congressman Bart Stupak sent a letter to the Tribal Council and FFJ, proposing binding arbitration by a three-member panel of tribal judges. FFJ endorsed the proposal, but the Tribal Council declined to endorse it and Dakota reportedly criticized it. After the June 13 deadline, Stupak submitted another proposal.
Witness for Nonviolence response
Witnesses are outside people invited to come into a conflict to monitor and document violence or harassment, to try to deter violence with their physical presence, and to work for a peaceful resolution. Different witness projects have been present at a number of conflicts involving indigenous peoples, including the Big Mountain dispute in Arizona, the escort of refugees to their homes in Central America, the Mohawk stand-off in Quebec, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and the Ojibwa spearfishing clashes in Wisconsin.
At Keweenaw Bay, witnesses were asked to form a presence after the May 29 attempted police assault. A new group -- the Upper Peninsula Witnesses for Nonviolence-was formed by non-Indians from the area. Among the founders were Vern Simula of Houghton, who had witnessed at northern Wisconsin boat landings, and Stella Larkin of Marquette, who had witnessed in Guatemala. Larkin said, "While the situation isn't nearly as bad as in Central America, I could still recognize the intimidation tactics, the weapons coming from outside, the attempts to prevent voting, and the fear felt by community members that kept them from speaking out. I could also recognize local people's determination for a just solution, the sanctuary by the Church, and the wish of everyone to live in peace."
The purpose of the Witnesses has been twofold. First, they are present within the compound to monitor the situation and deter attacks, with the use of cameras, recorders, and camcorders. Second, they have been daily picketing both the compound and the tribal casino, calling for nonviolence and a peaceful resolution. While there have been a few hostile reactions, they have been far outnumbered by honking and waving in support. (Witnesses have also been involved in environmental issues, including opposition to the recent train shipment of sulfuric acid to extract ore from the nearby White Pine copper mine, which has been opposed by Lake Superior Ojibwa tribes.)
Petitions circulated among local non-Indian communities -- including the churches -- have called for a peaceful settlement. Father John Hascall, whose Holy Name church gave sanctuary to FFJ members, has been at the forefront of public calls for nonviolence. On June 6, state religious leaders sent a letter to both factions, offering their services as an ecumenical mediation team. The letter was signed by high-ranking officials from the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist churches. With the failure of federal mediation efforts, the church proposal may be the next step toward a stand-down in the dispute.
Perhaps the most credible responses have come from other tribal governments in the region. A number of tribal leaders have stated that they are not taking sides, but support a peaceful end to the conflict. The Lac du Flambeau tribal council additionally voted to send $500 in humanitarian aid. A number of tribal leaders are realizing that whatever happens at Keweenaw Bay will affect them. A peaceful end would demonstrate that even the most intense disputes can be solved within tribal circles. A violent end would turn state and federal officials even more against gaming and sovereignty.
It is easy for outside observers -- particularly non-Indians -- to dismiss the Keweenaw Bay dispute as the inevitable result of new gaming wealth in Indian Country. But it is important to remember that dozens of tribes have gaming establishments without serious internal fights, and have used the profits mainly for programs to benefit the tribe as a whole. For many tribes, closing the casinos to eliminate gaming corruption is like closing the banks to stop bank robberies. It should be the decision of the tribal members -- not state governments -- whether or not to have gaming.
It is also easy for some non-Indians to use internal disputes as an excuse to reduce or eliminate tribal sovereignty. The colonial cliché "they're not ready to govern themselves" was historically used against Africans and Asians. But the United States also has a history of internal conflict and civil war, without anyone advocating that it be given back to England. And does the civil war in Bosnia mean that white people are incapable of responsible self-government?
The role of non-Indians should not be to feel morally superior to Native people fighting amongst themselves, but to expose the role that our society and government plays in these internal disputes. In whose interest is it to keep Native nations "destabilized," or always off center? Numerous multinational corporations, politicians, banks, mafia, and white supremacist groups want to get their hands on indigenous lands and money. It is also in their interest to weaken Native cultures that provide a refuge for indigenous people, and an example of a saner way of life. What better way to meet both goals than to set Indian against Indian?
It is encouraging that most of the people of the Upper Peninsula -- unlike many government officials -- do not seem to be washing their hands of the situation at Keweenaw Bay. Real concern has been shown, and some real action taken. On June 9, the 1st annual "Run for Justice" by witness Sondra Harting was met by great enthusiasm. She ran 21 miles to the sanctuary, was joined by 20 young people near the end, and cheered by over 50 people. More help is arriving daily, but the people in the church compound still need emergency donations, and the need will continue even if there is a peaceful stand-down. As Loonsfoot summed up the situation, "This is big time stuff in a little bitty town."