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Vizenor: Protesters were far from 'peaceful'

Erma Vizenor speaks to reporters Friday in White Earth. (Riham Feshir/Record)

Despite initial reports of peaceful gatherings in White Earth Tuesday, tribal officials say protesters went far beyond the normal right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

Police Chief Randy Goodwin said some of the protesters used force to try to gain access to the White Earth Tribal Headquarters. One pushed an officer in the face and others were involved in a "slight pushing contest."

Flagpoles had been damaged, a state flag and a tribal flag were stolen then burned, Goodwin added. Some tried to force water coolers off the walls in the new $18 million tribal headquarters building.

The American flag was left hanging upside down at half staff, an apparent distress symbol.

"The peaceful protesting that protesters were saying was going on, was not going on," Goodwin said in a press conference Friday.

At one point, a group of protesters was able to gain access to the headquarters building and lock executive director Ron Valiant in his office, Goodwin said, adding that Valiant was threatened numerous times.

"Even earlier that day they told him, when they had locked him in his office, that they were going to tear him into pieces and remove him that way," he added.

Police also confirmed reports of protesters putting on gloves and getting ready to either break some windows and storm the building or fight with officers, Goodwin said.

Videos posted on Facebook and YouTube were edited or staged, he said, law enforcement have videos of their own that will be used as evidence when criminal charges are filed.

When ready, criminal charges will either be filed in district, tribal or federal courts, he said.

Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said when the protesters -- those who signed a petition aiming to oust her from office -- disrupt tribal government operations, and use violence to enter the building, they're out of line.

"The conduct of petitioners have far exceeded the limits of free speech and assembly," she said. "The 30 to 50 individuals seem to think they can yell and threaten me out of office.

"One physically put force on me and I filed a complaint against that individual."

A small minority of the 20,000 White Earth enrollees do not agree with law and order, the tribal judicial system, a priority on education and on health care, Vizenor said.

Which is why they organized the petition with signatures -- some of which she said were "forged" and others invalid because they lacked a proper address, or confirmation of membership.

The petition -- the second one since April -- was presented to the council on June 28. It was denied once again by the council due to a shortfall of legitimate signatures, and a hearing that was initially scheduled for Aug. 9 was canceled.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT) received the petition for verification of signatures in the official enrollment book. Out of the 568 signatures, 109 did not match the enrollment book, Vizenor said.

"We have reports that some individuals signed the petition only because of intimidation," she added.

Vizenor is accused of not following the MCT Constitution, although she said she ran and won the election on a constitutional reform agenda.

"Constitutional reform has put me as a lightning rod," she said. "But that's what I'm here for."

Although the petition was rejected, she responded to its allegations anyway:

The tribal law enforcement agreements with the state and surrounding counties pre-date Vizenor's term as chairwoman, but she supports them because they increase jurisdiction and flexibility for tribal police to enforce state and tribal law on the reservation, Vizenor explained.

"Protecting public safety is the responsibility of tribal government," she said.

"All six bands under the constitution of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe have functioning law enforcement departments."

Additionally, the roots of the tribal court system stem to 1994, when Ada Deer, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the time, responded to a letter of inquiry from then-tribal Chairman Chip Wadena. Deer told him a constitutional amendment is not necessary for a tribal court, Vizenor said.

The allegations of granting hunting and fishing rights to non-members are false, Vizenor added, and membership has not been granted to those who are less than a quarter MCT blood degree.

She provided signed affidavits from three employees in the tribal enrollment office to that effect.

And she included an affidavit from Jeffrey Wark, the chair of the White Earth Election Board, that tribal elections are honest, fair and free from tribal council influence.

No tribal rights have been suspended, she said.

"There are absolutely no grounds, reason or rationale for recent disruptions of tribal operations -- damage and destruction by the lawless few that cost the White Earth tribe over $100,000."

Vizenor said the protesters were trying to re-enact tactics used to oust former chairman Chip Wadena.

But as a former Camp Justice participant herself, she said she knows the charges are different, the circumstances don't compare and back then, it was a much more peaceful situation.

"We had affidavits at that time from persons who witnessed election fraud," she said. "In many ways I can understand why people believe tribal leaders are corrupt."

Past attempts to use peaceful assemblies to end the corruption were based on a credible and honest movement, as opposed to the current "Camp Justice Again" group -- some of whom use drugs and verbal abuse, tribal officials said.

Vizenor said she believes the council will receive a third petition, but she doesn't anticipate it will work to oust her before her time.