League of Minnesota Human Right Commissions 36th Annual Conference Grand Casino Convention Center – Mille Lacs September 29, 2007 Report from Lisa Morris
There were people of all races: white, black, eastern Indians, American Indians, recent immigrants from Europe, and a few Asians. Lines were forming to get name tags, and then we proceeded to the police security to get our hands stamped, and our bags searched. Once in the room, I found a spot at an empty table in the back. I counted the number of rows of tables, and estimated at least 200 people to be in attendance. There were teachers, lawyers, and activists, many of which were on Human Rights Commissions in their local areas. Police lined the room, and we were told that they would receive educational credit as Peace Officers for attending the day’s lectures.
Running almost an entire hour late, emcee Larry Clark (LMHRC Board Member) welcomed us all and began the event at almost 10 am. The first speaker was Melanie Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians. She welcomed the audience, and talked briefly about rights, and how being a sovereign nation is an inherent right.
The next welcome message came from Mary Sams, Chair of the Mille Lacs Area Human Rights Commission. She began with “We’ve had critics, especially in the urban community. We are forever fighting against misinformation and ignorance. Some criticize, because they don’t see the need for us. Thanks to all of you for having the courage to speak up and do this. Where is the conscience of Minnesota when it comes to the Rights of the Indian people? Where is the tolerance? We are still working on some of the same issues that we were working on in 1901.”
Mary Sams proceeded with a list of “racial hate” incidents in Minnesota, but I got stuck on her first one: She mentioned a recent cross-burning incident in Anoka, that just occurred this week. As soon as she said it, I couldn’t help but respond out loud “But he did it himself!”, although no one around me heard. Anoka is essentially my neighborhood, so I have been very interested in the story this week. I watched Fox 9 News on Friday night (Sept 28), which detailed how the “victim” burned the cross in his own yard, in the hopes of some monetary gain. Read the story or watch the Fox News report.
Ms. Sams also spoke about an incident at a parade, where elder American Indians were disrespected. As the veterans rode in the parade, there was some shouting and disorderly conduct (I did not catch all of her description, and was unable to find any additional facts about it on the internet). Then she went on to say that there are assumptions by others that all Indian children are FAS, so they enter school with the negative attitudes all around them, and the community tolerates the hate. She stressed that we need our Minnesota leaders to mandate American Indian education, so that everyone has a chance to learn about the cultures, treaties, etc.
The final welcome speaker (before the main speakers) was Evelyn Staus, President of the League of Minnesota Human Rights Commissions. She told us that in Minnesota, there are 50 communities with Human Rights Commissions, and we need more. The League links them together at a state level. Past annual conferences have been held in the Twin Cities, at a law school. But, this year they were made aware of an incident in Mille Lacs County where an 11-year old boy was shackled as he was brought into court as a crime victim – not the defendant. (True story – read more. This prompted the league to focus on Indian issues, and hold this year’s conference in Mille Lacs County.
For the first guest speaker, Velma Korbel took the podium. Ms. Korbel is the Minnesota Human Right Commissioner, and began with speaking about her friendship with Ms. Sams. She agreed with most of what Mary Sams had said earlier, although she had to disagree on one thing. In the incident of disrespect to elders at a parade event 18-24 months ago, Mary Sams said that American Indians were disgraced. Ms. Korbel clarified: It was United States Veterans who were disgraced, not American Indians. No matter what race, no veteran should be disrespected (audience applauded).
Then Ms. Korbel got underway with her presentation, in the form of a PowerPoint slideshow. She highlighted several Human Rights settlements that her office handled in the past year (she gave us an overview in her speech, and I looked up the internet links when I got home. If my notes were not sufficient, the actual detailed links should be):
2. Imams taken off flight (Nov. 2006). Imams who were dressed in their traditional attire, and making gestures and movements consistent with their religious practices, made other flight passengers uncomfortable and were removed from the plane prior to takeoff. Brings up the question of “Where is the line?”. If passengers are perceived as a threat, do other passengers have the right to safe travel? Or, are the removed passengers having their freedom infringed upon?
4. Duluth Human Rights office will focus on housing complaints (Jan. 2007). However, they need funding to keep the office open. And they are dealing with a plan that calls for segregated schools in Duluth.
5. Slavery comment prompts apology from St Louis County School Board (Apr. 2007). Public official said that he would have supported slavery if that what his constituents wanted. (sorry – couldn’t find any details on internet).
6. Social Worker settles race discrimination case (May 2007) She was applying ICWA, and the city was tired of hearing from her. Settled for $90,000. (sorry – couldn’t find any details on this one either).
7. Race and Religion case allowed to proceed (May 2007). A woman named Stockwell chased a 24-year old Somali woman, and threatened to kill her if she didn’t denounce Islam (again, sorry for no further details. I am just conveying what Ms. Korbel had on her slideshow)
9. Alleged illegal workers detained (May 2007). Union members were apparently disgruntled when they didn’t get a remodeling contract, so they reported their competition as illegals (sorry – couldn’t find any supporting details)
10. Commissioner Korbel back Human Rights office (May 2007). (sorry – didn’t get any details to go with this story)
11. Black and Asians lag white in college graduation rates (June 2007) (Ms. Korbel didn’t indicate where she found her statistics, but I found an opposite report. It looks like it would take some more investigation to get accurate, reliable information.)
12. What’s in a name? (June 2007) A county in Wisconsin changed the name of “Squaw Bay” to “Mawikwe Bay” (weeping woman?), because the original name was considered offensive.
13. Schools may not consider race (June 2007) (no specific details here, but it doesn’t sound like new news to me).
After the PowerPoint presentation, Ms. Korbel summed up her speech by citing recent incidents of hate crimes: The Anoka cross burning (which we now know was a hoax, but apparently she wasn’t aware yet), the Jena 6 down south, and Myanmar Burma. All of these are Human Rights issues that we need to do something about. (except the Anoka one…)
The next featured speaker was Minnesota Senator Patricia Torres Ray (District 62 – Downtown Minneapolis). She came to this country 22 years ago, and was mentored by many of those in this room. She is usually asked to speak on immigration. She is an advocate for children, was a program director, and is now a senator. Now, in talking about American Indian children, she feels this is a great opportunity. She read from the League’s website (under “Why do we have Human Rights Commissions?” “The purpose of the Commission is to secure for all citizens, through education and prevention, equal opportunities for employment, housing, public information, public services, education, fair treatment, and full participation in affairs of the community.” And then the mission: “The Commission's mission is to proactively partner with government, business, educators, religious, service and other organizations to promote a community of harmony and respect for the rights and dignity of all.”
She was very impressed with those statements, and cited statistics of the American Indian population. She stated that 16% of American Indian children today do not live with their parents. Many live with grandparents. 39% of American Indian elderly live below poverty level. 10% of American Indians do not graduate from high school. (I had to check her statistics. First, I found a report on graduation rates. On the Minnesota page, it looks like more than 10% of every race does not graduate – including whites! Maybe her statistics come from the government, but that doesn’t give us a comparison to other specific races, so we don’t know how to assess that information. In an internet search, there were literally hundreds of other statistical websites, so it was difficult to determine where she got her numbers. Feel free to do additional research, if needed).
Citing those statistics, Ms. Torres Ray went on to say that she has worked in child advocacy for 20 years. She looked at the numbers, and had to ask herself “What do I need to do to pro-actively partner with others?” We need to do something about all children of color. Statistics about black and Latino groups are worse than American Indians. Worse. This is the group (present at this conference) to do something about it.
Her story: I live in the city (Minneapolis). One day, I was picking up my boys, when they were about 10 and 12 years old. An Indian man who had been drinking approached and asked for a quarter. I said I didn’t have a quarter. We walked on, and my son asked me “Mom, why did you lie? You have a quarter.” I told him that I think the man is going to the liquor store, so I didn’t want to give him a quarter. “How do you know that’s where he’s going?” I felt bad about lying in front of my boys, so I turned back towards the man, and held out a dollar. I told him to take the dollar, but don’t go to the liquor store with it. Go back to the reservation, because you are the owner of this land. You should be honored. My son was appalled, and said that he didn’t believe that the Indian was the owner of this land. Right then I realized that there was a disconnect. My son didn’t realize that the Indians do own this land, and they are great people. We need to change the perception of the Indians in the liquor store, as they are descendants of great people. We need to honor them. We need to change the statistics. (round of applause)
Next on the agenda came the Keynote speaker: Morris Dees, who is Cofounder and Chief Trial Counsel, Southern Poverty Law Center. The first thing he said was “I would wish that there was room for more people in this room, so those from CERA and other anti-Indian groups could attend. Speaking to you all is preaching to the choir.” (I tried to get this word-for-word, as much as I could):
I’m from the south, but our issues are similar to yours. I deal mostly with African American issues, and yours are Native American. Back when I was a child in school, Ms. Vera Belle Johnson taught me what it was to grow up and be a good citizen. First, no smoking. And second, no drinking. I did really well at the first one (audience chuckles). We learned a poem in her class:
Tobacco is a filthy weed,
And from the devil does proceed.
It stains your fingers and burns your clothes,
And makes a smokestack of your nose.
I think Ms. Vera Belle was so against smoking that she would not have even smoked a peace pipe with anyone. She was against drinking, but as a child I was already practicing to become a lawyer. She was also my Sunday school teacher, so I said one day at school “Ms. Vera Belle, if drinking is so bad, why did you tell us that Jesus changed water into wine?” She responded “He did, but imagine how much more highly we’d think of him if he didn’t do that!” (audience laughs).
A more important lesson from my youth was that every day I said these words: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America”. It bothered Ms Vera that we went to a segregated school. “One nation, with liberty and justice for all”. As a young man in the south, I picked cotton in the fields, right next to blacks. I went on to law school. I learned that human rights begin close to home: schools, communities, the workplace. Recently, Jesse Jackson led a march to Jena. What happened there is that the white kids would stand under a tree, relaxing, chatting, smoking, whatever. The black kids wanted to stand under the tree too. The principle did the right thing and said that they could stand under the tree too. But after they did, then nooses were hung in the tree. The situation escalated, and violence ensued. It resulted in 6 African Americans beating up a white kid, pretty seriously. When the white kids were charged with their crimes, they were correctly charged with a misdemeanor. When the black kids were charged, they got assault with the intent to murder. A black district attorney made the decisions.
What they all did wrong was instead of using this opportunity to talk out the issues, they divided instead. Our group will go to work to teach tolerance there. In Minnesota, there is a 7.1% chance that a black will result in incarceration than a white. Also with our Latino migrants, we have a president who talks about building a wall. (Mr. Dees then gave some detailed incidents about Latinos). It’s a political issue. We are interested in the human rights issues within the political issues. Leif Erickson and Christopher Columbus came here and were greeted with friendship. Not bigotry and hatred. The Latino population is growing. As America changes, we’re going to have to accommodate. Anti-Indian groups with their issues don’t die.
I had a chance to represent 50 Vietnamese in Texas. They came into Galveston Bay, and they wanted to fish. They were hard-working people. There were boats that were discarded, half sunk. They bought them for cheap, fixed the engines, and fished. They worked hard. Not long after that, a group of American fishermen petitioned the Texas Legislature to not allow any more fishing licenses. In their wisdom, the Legislature said that they can’t do that. This is free enterprise.
So the group called the Klu Klux Klan to frighten the Vietnamese, to burn their boats, to burn crosses, to get them out of there. The Vietnamese saw the Klan as terrorists. I was called to help the Vietnamese fishermen. I get there, and see that they have their little boats for sale, as the giant boats of the American fisherman go by. I let them know that we can file a lawsuit to get a Federal Court Injunction. This will keep the KKK from interfering with free trade.
Several other local fisherman and white families helped us. It was all set to go to court on a Monday morning, but I get a call just before that to drop the lawsuit. A representative of the Vietnamese said “Let the Klan have fishing, and we’ll do something else”. I said I wanted to talk to the Vietnamese, I wanted to explain to them that in America, our laws are designed to protect the minorities from the majority. It was a mandate of Martin Luther King. I explained Martin Luther King’s struggle to the Vietnamese. Please don’t drop the lawsuit.
They thought about it, and then I got a call to continue. We got good order for the Klan to not interfere. Then I was invited to watch the blessing of the fleet when shrimp season began. It was the Vietnamese tradition to do this at the beginning of each season. I got there at the early time of day, just as dawn was breaking, and the docks were shrouded in fog. Finally, we heard a diesel engine as it passed by – and a Vietnamese priest blessed the boat. Then one after another. As the sun rose, and the fog cleared, we could see the fleet heading out. Along with the US Marshalls that were sent there to enforce the court order.
America is an immigrant nation. It always was, and it always will be. New Americans need to find a place at America’s table. For the benefit of all of us. That event made me proud to be a lawyer. I’m proud to be an American. Seeing the majesty of our judicial system at work. Martin Luther King had faith in us as a people, to make that dream work. But there were many dark days. In 1963, I was just 3 years out of law school, and Martin Luther King was just 10 days out of jail. The Klu Klux Klan bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King delivered the eulogy, but he didn’t lose faith in the American people. “I have a dream…” If he made that speech today, it would include the people in the barrios, the reservations, the ghettos. And it would add the poor, the powerless, and the homeless. We need to truly learn to love one another. (applause)
At this point, Mr. Dees went into a long story about 900 BC, and the displaced Israelites. It included words form the biblical prophet Amos, … his final points of that story: We need to change this nation into a very diverse nation, a better place, and not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water.
And now they took a moment for questions from the audience:
Q: A white man stood up to say he lost his daughter 9 years ago to the Mille Lacs band. He has been discriminated – by race, by gender. He’s not a band member, so where is his justice? He’s not trying to put the band down, but he’s asking that they please do the right thing.
A: Morris Dees said that’s not a question for him. Someone else can help him.
Q: An American Indian man spoke of murders in Duluth. Please help.
A: Morris Dees said that he should go to his local authorities. We have problems with blacks in the south. Law enforcement will help. If some don’t, others will.
Q: Mary Sams addressed the first man who lost his daughter, and said that “RJ in the back of the room will help you at the break time.”
Q: A white lady asked “What are the key changes in law enforcement that citizens need to be aware of?”
A: Morris Dees said he wasn’t aware of any.
Q: A man from Burma, in SE Asia (Myanmar) told of the gross violations of human rights going on there. The internet has been completely cut off. Since Mr Dees is a man of voice that people listen to, please help us by using the power of speech. We need a U.S. response.
A: Morris Dees said that the world IS watching. He’s sad to see the China is not taking a position. We need a coalition of nations to help. We need leadership at the top to get involved. We’ve spent millions to get rid of a “so called” dictator in Iraq, but it had more to do with oil. We could also move into Darfur.
Q: An American Indian woman from Bemidji addressed the Duluth group: We need to address to American Indians, we’re thankful that you’re here. We have to keep out there to address issues. We need to engage ourselves in Indian communications. I know that we don’t have time, we’re too busy working, I have 11 grandchildren – but we will get there. We need law enforcement / police culture to change.
Q: A man (white or Indian? Couldn’t tell) asked “What strategy do you have for churches that forget to be churches? For civic groups that forget to be civic? For veterans groups that forget what it means to be an American?
A: Morris Dees said that’s something we need to work on. I’m on a commission now. But I’m glad to be here, glad you invited me. My daughter is ¼ Choctaw, and when I look around this room, and see all the dark hair and dark eyes, I see my daughter’s face here.
* * * * * * *
At that point, the emcee declared a break. We would get our lunches, and then hear from the next speaker. I headed to the bathroom, but kept my ears open. There was quite a long line in the women’s room, so as I waited, I listened to conversations. I overheard one woman telling another that as she entered the conference this morning, she was asked “Are you a participant or a demonstrator?”
“There are demonstrators here?”
“Oh yes – there’s a very active group nearby.”
In the lunch line, the man and woman behind me were discussing their involvement with various human rights groups. As they were talking, Morris Dees cut through the line to exit out the back door, along with 3 or 4 big, bulky guys. The people in line made comments about how weird that would be to have to travel with bodyguards. I turned to the guy behind me and said “Those were his bodyguards?”
“Yes, he’s had numerous death threats. There’s a big white supremist group in Ogilvie. A biker gang. And that’s why there are barricades, a SWAT team on the roof right now, and all the police around the room.”
There were no actual demonstrators at all at the casino. There was no conflict on anyone’s part.
* * * * * * *
After the break, we resumed the speaker schedule with Travis McAdam, of the Montana Human Rights Network. He used a PowerPoint presentation, and I copied a lot of the words directly from the slides. I tried to keep up word-for-word when I could, but this one was really difficult for me.
The first thing I noticed on the big screen on the wall behind him were the words:
Drumming up Resentment
The Anti-Indian Movement’s Campaign Against Native Interests
I recognized it right away as the report from back in the year 2000. He began to speak:
Many organizations continue to be active nationally. Anti-Indian movements as a whole, the groups and the activist’s names may change, but the message stays the same.
They are a political movement which opposes Indian self-determination.
They are varying groups, with varying members, but they are all united by broad themes:
Oppose Tribal Government
Oppose Federal Indian Policy
All social movements have an ebb and flow. In Montana right now, there is the least amount of activism in about 5-6 years. Minnesota and Wisconsin seem to be a lot more now.
There’s an opposition to Tribal Sovereignty. There’s an opposition to Indian control of land and resources. There’s the rhetorical issue of opposing Indian jurisdiction.
Is it racist? The Montana Human Right Network believes it is. We define it as racism when it seeks to limit the legally established rights of an ethnic group, united by a common history, tradition, and culture.
These groups are racist at their core.
One of the couples – Roland and Lisa Morris – sued MHRN for saying they were racist. They were wrong; it was settled. Roland even agreed with us. He was an Indian from Minnesota. He chaired a local group in the Flathead area, and a National organization. I’ll read from his deposition, and I’ll be referring to it a few times:
Mr. Morris, would you agree that denying rights to blacks would be racism? Morris said yes. Mr. Morris, would you agree that denying right to Jews would be racism? Morris said yes. (Mr. McAdam kept going with this, but I thought it might be better for you to review the actual wording of the real deposition for accuracy).
Roland Morris’s motivations are political.
If we wanted to remove blacks from the Civil Rights Act, that would be racism. We want our racism to be overt. Montana is 93% white, 6% Native American, but in prison, about 50% are minority. Issues really need to be worked out at a Nation to Nation level, but when one group is ethnic, it disintegrates rapidly. Like land issues in Montana. At meetings, non-tribal members, they might come in to talk about zoning, but then they slam Indians. It deteriorates into name calling. The anti-Indian movement tries to talk about things from a political and legal level. We work from the state level down. People who belong to CERA belong to other organizations. It starts, then it becomes overt. Like the Salish-Kootenai issue over the National Bison Range. It’s like “fill out a form, get a license, and shoot an Indian” (loud gasp from the entire audience).
They’re able to channel that into an organization that has a political movement. When hunting and fishing issues flare up, people like Lisa and Roland show up, and rally against it, saying “it’s only hunting and fishing”. And then with the Bison Range, the same people show up again and again, on every issue.
Also in Roland Morris’ deposition, he said sometimes he would go to ACE and ask to talk about issues, to resolve them at their own table, and was flat out denied.
The anti-Indian movement doesn’t believe that sovereignty exists.
And then there’s the “Name Game”. Using the word “equality” to invoke a civil rights movement. They say “we have the same rights as everyone else”. But tribes want treaties and sovereignty recognized. The names give the groups a rhetorical edge.
We tend to look for people in one place. State’s rights, local control, etc – you’ll find these types of groups.
There’s the idea that America is a white, Christian nation. We started in early 1990’s because of people from Idaho. They believed in their supremacy. It’s like the Klan and swastikas.
There’s “white victimization”, where they portray themselves as victims due to diversity. White, straight, males feel under attack.
They have a virulent anti-federal sentiment.
Back in 1995, with the Bison Range, Lisa and Roland Morris, and Rick Jore, talked glowingly about Federal management of the Bison Range. Rick Jore never supports Federals – unless it’s against Indians. Other politicians, like Burns and Gordon, made a career out of fighting tribes. It’s that vast right wing. At the state level, Rick Jore decried the Republicans, and jumped to the Constitution Party. A Native American woman beat him – and we were overjoyed – but he’s since back.
The minute Rick Jore was elected, the anti-Indian movement had a presence at the state level. This allowed groups to organize and influence policy. A county commissioner from Lake County got re-elected on a platform of “I’ll fight the Indians for ya!”. They work with and align themselves with groups like the Montana State Legal Foundation.
Voting districts are drawn to minimize the electorate impact. The foundation was formed by James Watt. “Don’t need to worry about protecting the habitat, because when the last tree is felled, Jesus will return”. (audience laughter).
They arrange fly-ins for Americans in Washington DC, to have meetings and lobby lawmakers. Last night when I arrived here, I talked with Billy Frank about Natural Resource preservation. There’s a “wise use” movement that’s out to destroy the environmental movement. It’s not like grassroots; it’s formed from the top down. CERA, Focus on the Family, ACE, etc, oppose affirmative action movements.
Racism sticks. The groups come with baggage [regarding their reputation]. A senate president in Montana said “it would be better if ACE didn’t even show up”. They come with baggage, so they re-form, and change names. According to ACE, the “only good Indian is a dead Indian”. All this political baggage was already there when Lisa and Roland Morris took over ACE.
Roland Morris is unusual in this situation as he is Indian. Indians who get involved with these movements are generally non-tribal. But since he’s Native, he can’t be called a racist. The Morris’ rise to leadership was so fast, they don’t even really know all the issues of the group. (at this point, as Mr. McAdam is talking about Roland, there is a picture of Roland, smiling, is up on the big screen displayed in the room).
CERA is a national group. Founder Bill Covey tried to separate from racism by saying that they are helping Indians from bad Federal Indian Policy, but did they ever ask the tribes if they wanted their help? Then they created CERF, and became a 501©3, which means that all the donations are tax deductible, and that they are tax exempt.
So, where’s the silver bullet? How do we fix this? How do we make it go away?
Start with education. The schools, the public officials. With a republican government, this didn’t get funded, but in 1995 it did get funded, and now there is Indian education.
In Montana, so many issues start over jurisdictional issues. They tried to pass laws, but there was so much opposition from realtors who were afraid it would affect their livelihood. The new government has been good at integrating Indians into their administration.
The thing about MHRN is, we’re not a tribal group. This report we did in 2000 got some press, then it died out, but then round 3 of the Bison Range came out, with environmental groups – which were our allies – against the issue. That gave the anti-Indian movement more leverage. The report became beneficial again, because it shows that it’s all about sovereignty.
Mr. McAdam ended his speech with this exact phrase:
“It’s not always easy, and it’s not always fun, but if it’s something you believe in – you have to do it.”
The thing that struck me about that phrase was that even though he was talking about his human rights side of things from his perspective, he could have also been giving Roland a motto as well. Roland believed in what he was doing, even if Mr. McAdam didn’t.
… As soon as he finished, and the audience was applauding, I had to pack up my pen and notebook and head out of the building.
I’m sorry I did not stay for the speech of Mary Jo Brooks (speaking on “Federal Indian Policy: Race and Racism Implications”). I know that Stella Keil was interested in that one, but I just couldn’t go back in there.