WHITE EARTH, Minn. – In the sixth day of protests aiming to unseat the head of the White Earth Reservation, police forced protesters away from tribal headquarters Tuesday and arrested three men.
The tactics incensed the protesters, who said their right to assemble on White Earth land was violated.
“That’s our grounds,” said Ray Bellcourt, one of the organizers of a petition to oust Chairwoman Erma Vizenor that was delivered to tribal leaders on June 28. “We’re under a police state here.”
During the tense face-off, two protesters who’d been video recording the events were arrested, said their mother, Diana King.
“They’re not hoodlums,” King said of Darwin and Martin Seeger, her sons. “We have no weapons. We’re making no threats.”
Darwin Seeger was hit with a stun gun during his arrest, his mother said.
White Earth Police Chief Randy Goodwin said he made the decision to push the protest away from the tribal building, with input from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and various area law enforcement officials.
Goodwin said he agreed there was a right to protest outside White Earth headquarters, but he said that’s only as long as the activists remain peaceful.
The police chief said the protesters burned flags and threatened tribal workers on Monday, when they also placed barricades on the road leading to the building to impede traffic.
“I’m somewhat relieved, and I’m somewhat saddened that this situation had to get to this point,” he said. “Escalating it is not something we wanted.”
George Rogers, one of the petition supporters, said some tribal workers helped escalate the situation Monday by flipping off protesters and cussing at them.
A third man was arrested Tuesday on an outstanding felony warrant as officers cleared the area, Goodwin said. Both Seeger brothers were arrested on suspicion of obstructing justice. All were taken to the Becker County Jail, he said.
Goodwin said a Taser was used, but he wasn’t sure who it was used on.
When protesting began Thursday, Goodwin said, the goal appeared to be to get a date for a hearing on the petition. On Friday, he said, the tribal council set the hearing for Aug. 9.
“That’s what they wanted. They wanted a date,” he said. “That wasn’t good enough.”
Bellcourt said tribal law doesn’t allow Vizenor to remain in her position as the petition against her is considered. Goodwin said that’s not the way it works.
Numerous phone messages left for Vizenor and other tribal council members were not returned.
Petition supporters said Robert Durant, White Earth secretary/treasurer, told them the tribal council will hold a hearing on the petition at 10 a.m. today. Durant confirmed Tuesday night there will be a hearing today but declined further comment.
The petition signed by more than 570 tribal members alleges that the tribal court system is illegitimate under the constitution of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe of which White Earth is a member.
Bellcourt said those who haven’t showed up for tribal court dates have had “treaty rights” to hunt, fish or harvest rice rescinded.
“They’re trying to rule by fear,” said Carl Wadena, who said he was injured by police during an altercation Monday at the door to tribal headquarters.
Some protesters disagree with how tribal revenue is distributed. They said the council members and other top officials draw salaries that are too large, among other complaints.
James Shimek said there is not enough accountability in spending.
“There’s more money that flows through this reservation than through most counties,” he said.
King, the mother whose sons were arrested, said the White Earth headquarters the protests had been staged by is an example of needless spending.
“You don’t build gorgeous buildings when your people are starving to death,” said King, a teacher in Waubun.
Though she didn’t return messages this week, Vizenor told a reporter at the time the petition was filed that it was “a malicious, personal vendetta that has absolutely no basis.”
Goodwin said that while the tribal offices closed on Tuesday due to the unrest, they are expected to open up today. But police won’t let protesters move back to their original position, he said. By Tuesday afternoon, they still controlled access at the entrance road to tribal headquarters.
“It’s still a hot issue,” he said. “There’s a little tension in the air yet.”
Bellcourt said protesting will continue until Vizenor is removed.
“The struggle has to go on,” he said.