Abuse of Power?

By Beacon Staff

On June 18, Bryon Scott Farmer woke up, logged on to Facebook and posted a message to a group he administers, Blackfeet Against Corruption.

Three weeks later, that comment landed him in jail.

Farmer has become the latest target of an obscure tribal law on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation — Ordinance 67 — that has been used to suspend councilors, intimidate protesters and imprison members.

Tribal officials, including Chairman Willie Sharp Jr., say the law preserves order and protects tribal councilors. But critics, including lawyers who have worked on the reservation, say the ordinance stifles free speech and is being abused by the current government.

In the past year, Farmer surfaced as a vocal critic of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the reservation’s governing body. Last summer, members of the ruling council, including Chairman Sharp, suspended five other councilors and more than two dozen tribal employees. Since then the nine-member panel has been partially vacant and Sharp’s administration is ruling under an emergency declaration.

On June 18, Farmer, who grew up on the reservation but now lives in Great Falls, wrote a lengthy post on the Blackfeet Against Corruption Facebook page about the then-upcoming North American Indian Days in Browning.

“On Saturday, July 13 at North American Indian Days we will show our tribe, Indian Country, America and the world that the Blackfeet will no longer allow corrupt leaders, illegal actions, politicians that ignore the will of the people, and abuse of our laws and people. We will show all Indians that you CAN take back your reservation when corrupt and incompetent politicians get out of control,” Farmer wrote.

Farmer continued, writing that tribal officials “will just have to guess what we have planned and wait like everybody else for the big day. We promise it will be exciting and make headlines worldwide. And we can tell you we are not planning anything violent or illegal so the (tribal council) will not be able to stop us.”

In the comments section, Farmer said he planned on building a float for the North American Indian Days parade. He said the float would include a big screen television and pictures of Adolf Hitler and Shannon Augare, the state senator and tribal councilman who recently pleaded not guilty to charges of driving under the influence and fleeing a police officer. Later on, in an interview with the Beacon, Farmer said he was only planning on walking in the parade. He insisted that what he was planning was peaceful.

But Sharp had heard differently. He said tribal officials were concerned about Farmer’s Facebook post sparking violence.

“His followers on the streets were saying different things,” Sharp said. “When they cross the line and start inciting violence, that’s when you have to take it seriously.”

On June 28, Blackfeet Chief Prosecutor Carl Pepion charged Farmer with violating Ordinance 67, which protects council members from “allegations of threats, slanderous material and misleading information.” Pepion signed a warrant for Farmer’s arrest.

Three weeks after posting on Facebook, Farmer was in Browning for North American Indian Days. On the afternoon of July 12, he was at a family member’s house getting ready for a pig roast. While working in the front yard, Farmer saw a tribal police car slowly drive by. Suspicious of their intentions, Farmer walked inside.

Moments later, eight police vehicles pulled up to the home, just as Farmer’s uncle, Gabe Grant, was walking down the street.

“When I came over, there were four cop cars on the property and another four cop cars on the street,” he said. “There were police all over.”

While officers asked family members where Farmer was, he listened from inside the house. After five minutes, he had heard enough.

“I got sick of it, so I went outside and said ‘who are you looking for?’” Farmer recalled.

“Bryon Farmer,” one of the tribal officers said.

“Well what does he look like?” Farmer asked.

“He fits your description,” the officer said.

Farmer said he walked out into the lawn and held his hands out. He was taken into custody at about 4 p.m. Friday and would spend the next four days in jail. Farmer’s bail was set at $5,000 cash.

On July 16, Dave Gordon, Farmer’s attorney, filed a writ of habeas corpus arguing that his client’s $5,000 cash bail was extreme. Farmer was released on $500 bail that evening. The charges against Farmer for violating Ordinance 67 remain and Gordon said he would be challenging the legality of the tribal law.

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council adopted Ordinance 67 on April 14, 1983, shortly after two tribal members assaulted councilman Robert “Smokey” Doore in Browning. Doore said he was at tribal headquarters when he was cornered in a hallway and held down by one man, while another repeatedly punched him. Working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Doore crafted an ordinance that he said was similar to federal laws protecting government employees. The original ordinance read: “Whoever forcibly assaults, threatens, practices intimidation upon, or interferes with any Blackfeet Tribal Business Councilman, duly elected by the tribal members, while engaged in or on account of the performance of his or her official duties, shall, upon conviction, be fined $500 and imprisoned six months in the Blackfeet jail.”

Since then, the ordinance has been amended twice, most recently in October 2009. Penalties for violating the ordinance increased to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. It was also expanded to ban the use of loud or profane language at council meetings and “harassment without merit, the distribution of false or misleading documents or writings, the making of slanderous or libelous statements, false innuendos or misleading statements made to harm, injure, discredit or causing the (council member) to be exposed to hatred, ridicule or contempt.”

Councilman Rodney “Fish” Gervais spearheaded the effort to expand Ordinance 67 after he had been heavily criticized for wanting to reform the tribal government.

“We simply updated it to protect the rights of the council,” he said. “People would call you a crook, a murderer, and a druggy and that just doesn’t fly in this community.”

The resolution to amend the ordinance passed unanimously. Gervais, who was on the council from 2006 to 2010 and is currently finishing his master’s degree in public administration, also tried to pass an ordinance giving all tribal members the same protections as Ordinance 67, but it failed.

Among the councilors who voted to amend Ordinance 67 was Paul McEvers, who said he was “sympathetic” to what Gervais was going through. Ironically, that very ordinance would be used to remove McEvers from the council three years later.

In the midst of the political upheaval of 2012, McEvers’ secretary allegedly used tribal office equipment to copy and distribute a petition to recall current members of the tribal council. In July, Augare directed tribal investigator David Spotted Eagle to look into the incident. During his investigation, Spotted Eagle asked McEvers to set up a meeting with the secretary, but the councilor refused to set up the interview. On Aug. 16, McEvers was accused of interfering with a tribal investigation and charged with violating Ordinance 67. McEvers was suspended three days later during a special session of the tribal council.

On Aug. 19, the day McEvers was dismissed, a protest formed outside tribal headquarters. As the summer rolled on, protests became a common occurrence in Browning, according to Nathan DeRoche.

DeRoche has led numerous rallies in the last year and said tribal police have threatened to arrest him for violating Ordinance 67.

“Ordinance 67 is a form of oppression,” he said. “I had never heard of Ordinance 67 until we started protesting, then they pulled it out of a hat. Someone must have remembered it.”

Kalispell attorney Thane Johnson has worked on the Blackfeet Reservation for nearly 20 years and was a tribal judge from 2002 to 2006. He represented McEvers after the councilor was suspended. Johnson said Ordinance 67 is “problematic” and the way it is being used by the current council is illegal.

“It violates the Indian Civil Rights Act,” he said.

The Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968 and guarantees Native Americans the right to free speech and the ability to protest.

But Sharp said the tribal council is only using Ordinance 67 to maintain order and the safety of its officials. He said his life has been threatened in the last year and that at times he does not feel safe.

“There is another side to this whole thing,” he said. “We were within our right as a tribal government to protect the interests of our members.”

Some former councilmembers, including McEvers and Gervais, say the current administration has abused the law, calling it a “political weapon.” Gervais said it is the result of a governmental structure destined to fail because there are no checks and balances on the tribal council. Johnson echoed those concerns, noting that the council appoints tribal judges who may not rule against the board for fear of losing their job.

“The (tribal council) controls the government, the judges, the police and speech,” Johnson said. “It has some similarities to Hitler’s Nazi Germany.”

Gervais said Ordinance 67 could work if used appropriately, but added that hasn’t been the case with the current council.

“If it can be abused, it will be abused and I think the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council has gone too far,” Gervais said. “They have abused their power.”

Within hours of being released from jail, Farmer was back on Facebook and criticizing the tribal council. He said he doesn’t plan on stopping his commentary anytime soon and said his arrest would only bring more support to his cause.

“I have the right to protest, to speak my mind. This is my tribe,” he said. “What are they going to do, Ordinance 67 me again?”