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Three arrested as tension in White Earth over tribal leadership continues

Protestors in White Earth raise their fists and taunt police during a confrontation Tuesday in White Earth, Minn., Tuesday afternoon. They were protesting tribal chairwoman Erma Vizenor and the tribal council. Brian Basham/DL Newspapers

WHITE EARTH, Minn. - Police and tribal members faced off in a protest near the White Earth Tribal Headquarters this afternoon as tribal members demanded answers to a petition aimed to oust Chairwoman Erma Vizenor.

The protest started last week as disgruntled tribal members, who had gathered more than 570 signatures on the petition, set up "Camp White Earth Justice Again" just outside of the tribal headquarters building.

By Monday night, they had chained the doors to the headquarters building and blocked the road with tree branches, Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon said.

About 30 police officers from several agencies confronted nearly 100 protestors for several hours today near the tribal clinic on Highway 224 and blocked off traffic both ways on the road.

When protestors started obstructing the reservation's daily business at the headquarters, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials relocated them about half a mile away on private land, Gordon said.

The building was also on lockdown for most of the day, but business resumed later Tuesday afternoon, he added.

White Earth Tribal Police arrested two protestors for obstructing legal process and a third was arrested for an active warrant, Gordon said. They were brought to Becker County, where their cases will be handled by the county attorney's office.

According to protest spokesman Harvey Bonga, the group had presented the petition to the council on June 28. The council then had 15 days to take action on the petition.

"Monday was the 15th day and we still had no answer," Bonga said. "Erma is the orchestrator of all this. She gave the orders to remove the protestors."

But according to tribal officials, the last council member to receive the petition was Gus Bevins, who received a copy on June 30. He has until July 15 to respond with the rest of the council.

Following that deadline, the council must give the accused a letter notifying them of the charges, then schedule a public hearing, according to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution.

"Stay off our land"

Police tried to get through the roadblock of tree branches, but protestors told law enforcement those squad cars belong to the people of the reservation.

"This morning, an officer tried to leave in his squad car and we asked him to please exit that tribal vehicle," Rev. JoDan Rousu said. "He got on the horn and all hell broke loose."

Diana King, mother of Darwin and Marty Seeger, who she said were both arrested Tuesday, said the White Earth Reservation under the current administration is "lawless."

"The tribal council or police don't follow the laws, and we have no freedom on our reservation," she said.

King, who said she once worked for Sen. Paul Wellstone, claims her son, Darwin, was tazed four times for no reason before he was arrested.

"This is a dictatorship. Five people decide what us dumb Indians want," she said. "There's no freedom or constitutional rights here."

Protestor Merlin Londo said he signed the petition to oust Vizenor and was just looking for answers.

"I can't understand what their objectives are," he said. "Are they just trying to keep an eye on us?"

The protestors shouted at police, talked amongst each other, began drumming and singing tribal songs; peaceful but with underlying tension. Several times, a protestor would talk to an officer only to be told to stand back or be arrested.

The tension was broken at about 1:30 p.m. when police removed their roadblock and moved back to the entrance road to the tribal headquarters, to cheers and taunts from protestors saying, "Stay off our land."

"Erma is the object of the petition and she's calling the shots," said Ray Bellcourt, an organizer of the petition. "These police are nothing but her goon squad. What right do they have to break up a peaceful assembly?"

Although the Becker County Sheriff's Department received allegations of violence, Gordon said police were not being violent with the protestors. The reason for their involvement was disruption of the legal process and daily business of the RTC.

Gordon anticipates the protest to last as similar ones have in the past, when Camp Justice was formed to oust former Chairman Chip Wadena.

"They can exercise their freedom of speech as long as no violence is involved," he said.

Law enforcement will continue to monitor the situation to make sure no violence occurs, he added.

White Earth Police Chief Randy Goodwin said he made the decision, with input from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to remove the protesters this morning after clashes on Monday with tribal employees.

"I'm somewhat relieved and somewhat saddened it had to get to this point," Goodwin said.


The Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co. Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reporter Dave Roepke contributed to this article.