Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The old Injun disguise

American white men have a colorful history when it comes to dressing up as Indians, dating back at least to the Boston Tea Party. They also have quite a history of using the ruse to make money, while simultaneously victimizing the Indians they're pretending to be.

One of the very last Indian wars, the Sheepeater War of 1879, was a classic case of this. Having seen how deeply the Nez Perce War of 1877 had enriched the towns of LaGrande and Baker in northeastern Oregon, which had served as supply depots for the cavalry, community leaders in the Yankee Fork mining district in south-central Idaho decided that a little Indian war was just what was needed in their neck of the woods.

Mind you, it little mattered that there were only scattered bands of Shoshoni, known as Sheepeaters, who were known to dwell in the vicinity, and they rarely posed a threat to the lives of locals, because they tended to keep to themselves. As it happened, there were also a number of Chinese in the Yankee Fork, and some of them had the audacity to cross the line from providing services to miners to trying their hands at staking some mining claims themselves.

So it happened that a group of five Chinese miners were found massacred at their claim a little ways west of the Yankee Fork district that summer, and the corpses were littered with arrows, though supposedly they all died of gunshot wounds. Indeed, there was no evidence that Sheepeaters had even been in the vicinity, but the legend of the massacre soon spread, and an "Indian panic" shortly resulted.

Sure enough, the cavalry was called in, and a battalion of soldiers spent the next several months traipsing up and down the high mountain ridges of the Middle Fork country, chasing a few Indians hither and yon. Finally, at the end of the campaign, they managed to round up 50 or so women, children, and elderly Indians who they had captured as prisoners, and sent them off to the Shoshone-Bannock reservation in Fort Hall, thus declaring victory. The Yankee Fork communities briefly benefited from the influx of government money, but it didn't last long. By the turn of the century, the district had dried up, and all that remains there now are ghost towns.

I was reminded of the Sheepeater scam recently with the rise of the Little Shell Pembina Band, which made a brief appearance on the local scene in the Seattle area by trying to give posthumous tribal membership to a slain cop.

Essentially, the "tribe" is actually an operation that allows anyone of any ancestry to claim tribal membership, a status that is supposed to confer all kinds of tax and insurance exemptions. It is, in essence, a bunch of whites (and other non-Indians) dressing up in tribal sovereignty in a way that undermines the rights of legitimate tribes, and enriches the scamsters in the process. As I explained in a follow-up post, the Pembina scam includes insurance and tax schemes that are closely related to old far-right conspiracy theories.

Now my longtime source Mark Pitcavage and his merry band of researchers at the Anti-Defamation league have put together a definitive report on the Pembina Band scam, laying out how it is the latest manifestation of the right-wing attempt to establish "sovereign citizenship." It also makes clear its origins:
At some point during these unsuccessful legal battles, Delorme transformed the Little Shell Band into a sovereign citizen group. Its ideology was not new to the region: sovereign citizens had been active in North Dakota, where Delorme and his extended family lived, dating back to the 1980s, when Posse Comitatus leader Gordon Kahl ambushed and killed two federal marshals in Medina in 1983.

By 2004 the Little Shell Band claimed to be a "completely sovereign tribe" that held "allodial title" to over 53 million acres of land (for some reason, this figure was later increased to 62 million). Saying it no longer sought federal recognition, the group declared its own executive, legislative and judicial powers, bestowing on itself the right to establish a legal bar and "tribal lawyers" as well as a "sovereign tribal financial and banking institution."

Perhaps most importantly, the "new" version of the Little Shell Band allowed anyone, regardless of ancestry, to become a member of the group, opening the door for a variety of anti-government figures to join (for a fee) and claim membership in the "sovereign" Little Shell Band. As a result, Little Shell Band activity spread around the country.

Also noteworthy is its cast of characters, including a couple of figures I described earlier:
Navin Naidu (Circuit Court Judge and Finance/Economic Advisor). Naidu is perhaps the strangest Little Shell character of all. He first achieved notoriety when he appeared in Fiji in 2001 as the lawyer for George Speight, a former insurance salesman who had spearheaded an unsuccessful coup d'etat and was subsequently charged with treason. When the Fiji government checked Naidu's qualifications, it discovered that his University of London law certificate was spurious, as was his claim to be practicing at the "International Ecclesiastical Law Offices" in Seattle, which turned out to be non-existent. Naidu, a Singapore-born ethnic East Indian and U.S. resident, admitted that he had no license to practice law in the U.S. but that his credentials came from "Jesus." Naidu was arrested and later deported. Back in the United States, Naidu moved to Kent, Washington, where he identified himself as an "ecclesiastical lawyer" and began devising plans to create a church court that could marry or divorce people and even decide criminal cases.

John Lloyd Kirk (Clerk; Tribal Lawyer). A Tukwila, Washington, sovereign citizen and anti-Semite and a friend of Montana Freeman Leroy Schweitzer, Kirk was one of a group of seven Washington sovereign citizens and militia members arrested in 1997 on a variety of weapons and explosives charges. Convicted of possession of a pipe bomb and conspiracy to possess and make destructive devices, Kirk received a 46-month prison sentence. It was not his first conviction: in 1980, according to author Jane Kramer, he had been found guilty of statutory rape in an incident involving his daughters.

You know the saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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