Montana conference features anti-American Indian, antigovernment figureheads

A conference this weekend in Montana will co-host antigovernment extremists whose separate agendas target agencies and policies of the U.S. Department of Interior now headed by Montana native Ryan Zinke.

The gathering in Whitefish — Zinke’s hometown — will feature Ammon Bundy, the antigovernment icon from Nevada who has used guns, force and militia supporters to advocate stripping management of public lands from Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.

The “This West is OUR West” conference Saturday also will feature Elaine Willman, described as a “prominent anti-Indian activist,” and other speakers whose far-right messages touch upon the supposed “Deep State” and creation of a 51st state.

The Montana Human Rights Network called the conference (which right-wing organizers have themed “The New Code of the West”) a “far-right event where antigovernment extremism and anti-Indian bigotry roam free.”

The conference has a “lineup of speakers with histories of bashing the federal government, conservationists, and American Indian policy,” the human rights organization said in a statement supported by Whitefish residents, tribal representatives and public land advocates.

“By inviting Ammon Bundy, organizers and participants of this event are attempting to normalize the seizure of public lands and to legitimize threats against federal and local law enforcement,” said Bob Brown, a state legislator for 27 years, former Montana secretary of state and a Whitefish area resident.

“This extremist event flies in the face of the values Montanans of all political persuasions share,” Brown said. “It has no place in Whitefish or anywhere else in Montana.”

Meanwhile, the Montana Wilderness Association has started an online petition on its website “denouncing the New Code of the West” event and urging Zinke to do the same.

More than 800 signatures have been collected so far and were forwarded to the Interior Secretary’s office, Ted Brewer, communications director for the association, told Hatewatch.

The association also took out full-page ads this week in various Montana newspapers, denouncing the event and urging the interior secretary to comment.

Zinke was in his home state this week but has not commented publicly on this weekend’s gathering in his hometown or if he was invited to attend.

“This event involves organizers and speakers who peddle conspiracy theories meant to sow fear and division within our communities,” the wilderness association said in its statement.

The organizers advocate “terminating Indian treaty rights and eliminating tribal sovereignty [while aligning] themselves with the violent and illegal actions that the Bundy family has committed against the public land managers and law enforcement agents you oversee as Secretary of the Interior,” the wilderness association statement says.

The gathering of anti-federal public land advocates and anti-Indian rights players also is concern for various Montana tribal leaders.

“This event is targeting American Indian people across the state and the West,” said Carolyn Pease Lopez, former Montana state legislator and member of the Crow tribe.

“We must stand together undivided against bigotry and any efforts to insert anti-Indian sentiment into the political mainstream,” said Pease Lopez, whose tribe has been a target of conspiracy theories spread by conference participants.

Willman, who now lives near Whitefish, advocates that the Bureau of Indian Affairs — another Interior Department agency — terminate treaty rights and tribal sovereignty for American Indians in favor of a white, European culture.

In a post online earlier this year, Willman talked about ending American Indian tribal sovereignty and assimilating American Indians into the culture of their white colonizers. She posted a meme on her Facebook page that said: “You are WHITE. Your ancestors did not steal this country…they BUILT this country.”

Willman is supported by Laura Lee O’Neil, another Montana resident who identifies herself as the primary organizer of the conference.

O’Neil launched the This West is OUR West website two years ago “and it was greeted enthusiastically by militia activists,” the Montana Human Rights Network statement said.

O’Neil has ties to the antigovernment propagandist John Birch Society and has said Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, wasn’t “wrong” when he refused to pay the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) federal grazing fees and became the focal point for the 2014 standoff with federal agents at Bunkerville, Nevada.

Also listed as a conference speaker is Matt Shea, a far-right, gun-agenda state legislator from Washington state who advocates creation of a 51st state and weaving Christianity into government.

Shea was involved in forming a chapter of the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America. He expressed support for the 2014 Bundy standoff at Bunkerville, then actually showed up in Burns, Oregon, in 2016 when Ammon Bundy and other armed militia members were involved in the illegal, armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Rounding out the list of speakers is Alex Newman, a writer for the John Birch Society’s magazine.

Earlier this year, Newman authored a Birch Society piece about the “Deep State,” and now “is viewed by right-wing extremists as an expert” on that topic, according to the Montana Human Rights Network.

The Deep State conspiracy theory suggests government insiders and career employees are somehow working in a conspiracy to undermine President Trump and his administrative agenda by leaking internal documents, fostering critical media coverage and stirring public opposition.

At a counter-protest at 10 a.m. Saturday in Depot Park in Whitefish, the association will join the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Montana Human Rights Network and Love Lives Here in hosting a gathering called “Montana Undivided: A Rally for Human Rights and Public Lands.”

Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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