Elaine Willman and the Invasion of the Tribal Justice Warriors

Recently, CAPR’s Skagit chapter invited Elaine Willman, nationally renowned author and public speaker, to hold a workshop on water and property rights, specifically in the context of conflicts with tribal governments.  Ms Willman, who has written two popular books on that subject, is an expert on federal government and tribal decisions and how they impact land use inside and outside Indian reservations.  She also is vocal about threats to constitutional rights for both tribal members and other American citizens.

It’s no surprise then that Elaine Willman is highly controversial.  She points out the hypocrisy of tribal leaders and various others in what she calls the Indian industry who are invested in American Indian victimhood in order to secure political favoritism and more taxpayer largess.  She also calls out politicians who take generous campaign donations from the tribes, made possible by the numerous casinos that pockmark the country, and then legislate and rule against their own constituents.  This has earned her their animus, which is a polite word for hatred, especially because she has been very successful in raising citizen awareness of the danger of losing their rights to an increasingly militant and aggressive movement and her equally successful thwarting of tribal attempts to blatantly claim jurisdiction over lands that belong to others.         

Ms Willman was obviously a good choice to bring to Skagit County to discuss strategies for counteracting both the subtle and insidious as well as the overt attacks on property and water rights of Skagit residents by one of the county’s four tribes; the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and its Chairman Brian Cladoosby.   

As a reminder, Mr. Cladoosby and his legion of lawyers have played a large part in shutting down access to water and thereby shutting down the ability of land owners in much of Skagit County to do anything with their property, making it all but worthless. Prior to the infamous 2013 Swinomish v Ecology decision, he boasted in front of all three County Commissioners he intended to control land use in the Skagit Basin by controlling water. (1)

In the wake of the Ninth Circuit’s Great Wolf Lodge decision, Cladoosby and his Swinomish government promised that the tribe would collect the property taxes from non-tribal members living on the reservation that the county had previously collected and turn the revenues over to the taxing districts as before.  In fact, only about half that amount was actually provided. That created severe financial difficulties, especially for the LaConner school district.  Subsequently, residents of that town saw an increase their taxes to make up for the shortfall. (2)

Cladoosby and the Swinomish were responsible for an anti-agriculture misinformation campaign called “What’s Upstream.”  Using federal tax dollars from an EPA grant, the tribe hired a Seattle based leftwing/environmentalist PR firm, Strategies 360, to design a website and erect billboards in Olympia and Whatcom County claiming patently untrue accusations that farming in the state was unregulated, that farms were polluting waterways, and urged people to call or email their legislators. The campaign came to the attention of two U.S. Senators and several House members who demanded to know from a sheepish EPA Director why federal funds were being used for this hostile campaign against the agricultural community.  It should be noted that neither of Washington’s two senators weighed in on this matter.     

Perhaps the biggest outrage was the tribe’s attempt, using the revision of its constitution as a pretext, to enlarge its reservation boundaries to encompass land which includes two refineries as well as numerous businesses and residences under the jurisdiction of the City of Anacortes or Skagit County.  Need-less-to-say, this would devastate local economies.  Thankfully, the BIA rejected the proposal outright. 

Not willing to let the rejection stand, the Swinomish then inserted vague wording to a new revision that could give them . . .

“...jurisdiction over all persons. subjects, property and activities occurring within ... 2. (b) the Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations and all open and unclaimed lands, as guaranteed by treaty for fishing, hunting and gathering, and on such other lands, as guaranteed by treaty for fishing, hunting and gathering, and on such other lands and waters as is necessary for access to such fishing, hunting and gathering areas.”  

This could be interpreted, especially by our uber liberal west coast judges, to mean that it gives them control of the entire county.  Not good from the stand point of anyone not a member of the Swinomish tribe.  So, it was understandable that the Skagit CAPR Chapter would reach out to Ms Willman in order to get the benefit of her experience and perspective. 

On Saturday, May 20th, people started arriving at the Tequila Azteca restaurant in Sedro-Woolley around 9:30 AM.  The workshop was scheduled to start at 10:00.  As the room filled up, another group of around 20, some wearing red T-shirts and a couple of them sporting cedar bark hats took up positions on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.  Holding signs and unfurling banners that proclaimed an odd assortment of messages which clearly indicated they weren’t happy about our workshop along with a number of other indignities that presumably we were threatening to visit upon Native Americans. 

Some signs demanded that tribal treaties and native rights be respected.  Another claimed that refineries poisoned the Salish Sea.  Others announced their bearers were opposed to fascism and hate speech.  One of the more interesting signs read; “Queers Against Colonialism,” its scraggly bearded carrier obviously unaware that members of the LGBT community in post colonial societies are often not well treated.  A sign that seemed out of place was one that proclaimed “Terra y Libertad” with a depiction of someone who resembled Pancho Villa.  Google translates Terra y Libertad as “Earth and Freedom.”     

The workshop began with a discussion of the meaning of sovereignty.  The tribes claim sovereignty and thus special status for themselves, but Elaine explained that this was really a quasi-dependent sovereignty and reservation lands are not owned by the tribes, but by the federal government.  Tribes have only a federally protected beneficial use and occupancy of lands and water.  Tribes have jurisdiction over their members who live on reservations.  Nothing more. 

Outside, on the sidewalk, the protesters were lined up with their signs and banners, some facing us in the room and others taking turns facing traffic along SR20.   One of the organizers yelled into a bullhorn.  Inside the room, it wasn’t clear what was being said.  Perhaps there was chanting too as this looked like an honest-to-goodness real life protest.  The kind you see on TV.                                                        

Elaine’s presentation continued as she spoke about the status of tribes and how that changed from the 19th Century treaties to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 when they became “federally chartered” organizations.  She emphasized that, although some tribes call themselves “nations,” they are anything but that.   

She commented that with the advent of the Indian Gaming Act of 1988, relations between tribes and local governments and sometimes the states began to change.  Prior to the act, there were only 65 federally recognized tribes.  Now there are 567 with more seeking recognition so they can benefit from casinos on reservation land.  Flush with gambling money, they have become politically active and increasingly demanded concessions from surrounding jurisdictions.    

Tribes exercise jurisdictional authority on their reservations over their enrolled members.  Thanks to an advisory opinion from the FEC, they are the only jurisdictions in the United States that are allowed to contribute money to political campaigns.  It’s a sad commentary on our democratic process that tribes seem to get a very good return on their investment for those contributions.  State governments can’t do that, nor can county, city or town governments.  Tribes are also allowed to block vote which can skew close elections.  The money and block voting increases their influence well beyond their numbers and is a real threat to representative government.

At the moment we had chosen to take a break for lunch, about a dozen red shirted protesters walked into the room, which was poor timing on their part.  While people got up for bathroom breaks and wait staff took orders, the new arrivals could only sit in the few available chairs or stand at one corner of the room.  

When we resumed, Elaine had graciously invited a cedar bark hat wearing protester to dialogue with her.  His name was Paul Wagner, although he preferred his tribal moniker of “Che oke’ ten.”(3)  He said he lived in Redmond but was affiliated with the Saanich Tribe, which is primarily based in British Columbia.  He was also a former member of Bellingham NoDAPL, a chapter of the organization that conducted unsuccessful protests in North Dakota to shut down the completion of a major pipeline that skirted a Sioux reservation.  After the protesters left their campground there, 24,000 tons of garbage had to be removed and eight abandoned dogs (six of them puppies) as well as one human corpse were found among the debris.  North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum commented that “This is probably the biggest ecological mess on the entire Missouri River system from top to bottom in this country.” 

With the failure of that protest and also the bad press from one of its demonstrations in Bellingham causing a pile-up on I-5, which resulted in significant vehicle damage and one person hospitalized, Bellingham NoDAPL renamed itself, “Red Line Salish Sea.”

Wagner claimed, as one of the “First Peoples,’ he was more than an American.  In fact, he didn’t think much of America.  In his opening statement, he claimed that the United States is colonialist.  Reservations are concentration camps.  And the U.S. is worst than Hitler because we killed more American Indians than the Fuhrer killed Jews.  What’s more, although it’s in America’s Declaration of Independence that “all Men are created equal,” the founders didn’t really believe that all men were created equal.  Why else would they kidnap Indian children for generations and abuse them to death? 

Interspersed with this vituperative performance, were bromides about what he claimed were traditional Indian values that there should be no fear in this world.  We shouldn’t fear nature or other people, apparently not aware that before the European explorers arrived, tribes often had a lot to fear as they jockeyed for territory, warred against their neighbors, took slaves and generally behaved like every other people on this planet since “time immemorial.” 

Wagner continued in the same vein, stressing that what’s important is what’s in a person’s heart.  The NoDAPL group shutting down Chase Bank in Seattle was because of the threat the Kinder-Morgan pipeline presents.  “It’s for the children,” he stated.  When Elaine commented that he was stuck in yesterday, Wagner became agitated and disagreed strongly, saying that he was referring to the present.  He then began an emotional rant that the Government of the United States originated as a corporation and the result has been disastrous for indigenous people.  In this part of the Salish Sea region, there are less than 5% of the forests, animals and tribal people now compared to what was here before.  And there was no future unless new ways of understanding were achieved. 

While this was going on, a young protester made a show of photographing and/or videotaping the entire room and everyone in it with her cell phone, probably as an attempt to intimate the attendees. 

A question came from the audience about how casinos fit into tribal life.  At that point, Wagner handed the mic over to Michelle Vendiola (4), who is a protest organizer with the group.  Vendiola immediately began haranguing the attendees about tribal sovereignty and how tribal resources have been stolen.  She attacked CERA (Citizens Equal Rights Alliance), an organization that Elaine Willman once chaired, but is no longer involved with.  CERA began as an organization to promote civil rights for all tribal members as well as equal treatment for all regardless if they were associated with a tribe or not.  U.S. Constitutional protections are often ignored by tribal leadership when dealing with reservation residents.  According to Vendiola, CERA created a fear factor among Indians.  She then railed at the entities she thought were supporting the workshop; “Liberty Road” (reference to the companion website for Kris Halterman’s radio show, “Saturday Morning Live” on KGMI) and the Republican Party, announcing the “Republican Party works for corporations.”  Her source of information was unreliable.  Neither Liberty Road nor the Republican Party had anything to do with the workshop.  It was a CAPR event from start to finish.

As she continued her rant, she was asked to give up the microphone, but she refused.  The microphone was then shut off, but she kept on with her rant about real and imagined crimes against indigenous peoples.  Finally, the police were called. 

Paul announced we were on indigenous territory and then began beating his drum while chanting to the accompaniment of his red shirted companions.  Our workshop had devolved into a clown show.  Fortunately, a Sedro-Woolley police officer soon arrived and the protesters left the room.  At that point, we resumed with no further interruptions, although later on, near the end of the event, apparently one of their number, a quiet lurker, who claimed to be a lawyer and farmer, but dressed in clothing that can only be described as Goodwill rejects, took us “old, white people” to task for having so much hate in our hearts and then promptly walked out of the room.

Commenting on her failed attempt to dialogue with the protesters, Elaine observed that what we were dealing with was emotional blackmail.  That tactic works because Americans are a good hearted, caring people.  The protesters take advantage of that so we acquiesce to their demands. 

Emotion plus money is fueling tribal efforts to gain more power.  Both have a strong effect on legislators, especially in this time of PC culture.  Thus the winners of this effort to portray victimization and, at the same time, pump casino dollars into campaign coffers are the tribal leaders and their allies in the environmental movement and bought politicians.  The losers are everyday people who lose their property rights and suffer severe economic loss, as well as tribal members who are left to live purposeless existences in squalid conditions.  It’s no wonder that almost 80% of American Indians live off reservation. (5)  According to Elaine, the unfortunate reality is that out of every dollar going to tribal governments, maybe two cents goes to its members.  Something is very wrong with this picture. 

If we examine history in its totality, while it’s true that Europeans did displace the original inhabitants of North America, it’s also true that happened over and over again between other peoples on every continent except Antarctica.  In North America, atrocities were committed on both sides, as they were between rival tribes before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.  Even afterwards, mutual distrust and conflict between tribes was not unusual and in some cases, happened more frequently. (6)  Interestingly, Blackfoot elders were quoted as saying that the only factor that kept their enemy, the Crow Tribe, from extermination was its alliance with the white man. (7)  It was a harsh time when people lived harsh lives and their actions were often harsh.  Man’s inhumanity to man was the rule rather than the exception.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans, native populations had to contend with debilitating disease as well as intertribal warfare.  Even in the healthiest indigenous societies, life spans near 35 were common and few survived past 50. (8)  North America was no utopia. 

The current campaign by tribal activists is in lockstep with the radical left’s characterization of the history of the United States and its people; that this nation was built on a foundation of evil and greed.   And redemption is doubtful unless certain prescribed collectivist remedies are instituted with the majority population subordinating its interests to them.  Add to that an apparent deep seated impulse among the activists to engage in retribution across the generations and you accurately sum up their movement’s positions and goals.  Nothing positive comes from such a mindset.  And the truth is that satisfying their demands will only result in more demands.  Better that we exercise our Constitutionally guaranteed rights to peacefully pursue activities that raise awareness and result in just and equitable outcomes for everyone.  We are all Americans, after all.     


(1)  Skagit Board of County Commissioners letter to Governor Gregoire, November 15, 2011.  https://www.skagitcounty.net/PlanningAndPermit/Documents/WaterRights/Ltr%20to%20Gov%20Christine%20Gregoire%20re%20Water%20Rights.pdf

(2)  http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2015/05/06/tribal-tax-dodge.html

(3)  https://www.facebook.com/PaulCheokutenWagner/

(4)  http://lastrealindians.com/coalition-voices-disappointment-in-pipeline-easement-vows-challenge-by-michael-vendiola/

(5)  https://www.census.gov/prod/2006pubs/censr-28.pdf

(6)  Intertribal Warfare as the Precursor of Indian-White Warfare on the Northern Great Plains,  John C. Ewers, Western Historical Quarterly, Vol 6 No. 4, October 1975, pp 397-410 


(7)  Ibid

(8)  http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/29/science/don-t-blame-columbus-for-all-the-indians-ills.html


July 1, 2017