Nearly three years after Ammon Bundy helped lead an armed standoff against authorities in southeastern Oregon, the anti-government extremist hasn’t slowed his efforts. He has kept himself in the news by flirting with running for office and suggesting there may be future standoffs to come, along with continuing to court fellow far-right and notoriously anti-Native American activists, such as those expected to gather this weekend in Whitefish, Montana.
Bundy is slated to headline the “Code of the West” conference, a one-day conclave dedicated to “cleaning out corruption from the Crooked Corral.” The conference is sponsored by a group called “This West is OUR West” which was founded a few years ago but, prior to the conference, had previously existed online only.
The event appears to be something of a coming-out party for the organization — as well as one of the biggest gatherings of political extremists across the American West in months.
This is OUR West’s mission statement clearly articulates the purpose of the conference and highlights the various conspiracies embraced by its participants.
Our country, particularly in the Western States, is under siege from federal government over-reach, expansion of tribalism as a governing system removing state jurisdiction and protection of its citizens, international/global agendas — all working with separate but congruent goals that are clearly unsettling the West.
If there was any question about the types of conspiratorial activists and politicos drawn to a group that believes in a “global” agenda against the American West, the conference’s schedule of speakers is a who’s-who among the more extreme voices in the region. Not all of them took part in Bundy’s 2016 standoff in Oregon — nor in his father’s 2014 standoff in Nevada, which resulted in the greatest concentration of domestic terrorists the U.S. had witnessed in years — but all appear sympathetic to the Bundy family’s efforts to resort to armed threats against the American government.
While Bundy has taken top billing, he’ll be joined by Jeanette Finicum, the wife of deceased militant LaVoy Finicum. Jeanette Finicum will be screening a movie about her husband, who was killed by federal agents in early 2016 while reaching for his gun. The movie, according to This West is OUR West, will detail the “dreamy life and epic death of one of the last Wild West American cowboys.”
Other speakers will bring their own flavors of extremism to the conference. One, Matt Shea, is a Republican member of Washington State’s House of Representatives and is perhaps the most vocal elected official backing the Bundys’ efforts. Shea managed to visit Ammon and Ryan Bundy during the 2016 armed takeover, adding to his litany of questionable efforts in the past, which include things like claiming the Oklahoma City bombing was an inside job and that FEMA is building concentration camps for Americans.
It’s unclear what exactly each speaker will be discussing; the topics listed on the schedule range from “Round ’em up” to “Do what has to be done” to “How the West was won.” But impressively, This West is OUR West hasn’t bothered to try to mask any of the conspiracies participants will espouse at the conference. One speaker, Dan Happel, is described on the conference organizer’s website as an “expert on Agenda 21” — the far-right conspiracy theory that claims the U.N. is trying to destroy national sovereignty via environmentalism.
Another speaker, the John Birch Society’s Alex Newman, is identified as the “editor” of something called “Red Pill University,” where he regularly rails against the so-called “Deep State.” (The conference organizers also promised to “reveal how a shadowy “Deep State” is impacting the West.)
There’s one question hanging over the conference, though: Why hasn’t Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke commented on the extremist gathering? Whitefish is Zinke’s hometown and thus far, he’s gone out of his way to avoid discussing the conference, or whether he was invited to speak, despite efforts to get him to comment. As the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote, Zinke “has not commented publicly on this weekend’s gathering in his hometown or if he was invited to attend.” His office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions on the topic.
Zinke hasn’t shied away from commenting on other domestic political developments. Just this month, he described pipeline protesters as “anti-American,” for instance, which leads to questions about just how he’d describe those, like the Bundys, who would threaten federal agents at gunpoint.
Rights for all Montanans
As the Bundys increasingly gravitate toward Montana — the conference will be at least the third time this year that they’ve spoken in the state — there’s been concerted push-back among local activists, who have issued both reports on the listed speakers and plans for a counter-conference to take place at the same time.
In addition to coverage from local outlets like the Flathead Beacon, Montana Public Radio, Whitefish Pilot, and the Missoulian, the Montana Human Rights Network released a comprehensive, 13-page report on the conference speakers and the threats they pose not only to the region, but also to the non-white residents of Montana. (There will be a counter-protest planned in Whitefish on Saturday, bringing a handful of groups — including both the Montana Human Rights Network and Montana Wildlife Federation — out to gather against the speakers.)
As the report reads:
The speakers for the Code of the West promote an array of extremist conspiracy theories that trace back to the militia movement of the 1990s. Many of these militia conspiracies were modified only slightly from the anti-Semitic versions that are used by the white supremacist movement.
While espousing slightly different versions of the same conspiracy, the Code of the West speakers spread fear and hatred of the federal government, which they claim is working with shadowy cabals to implement a one-world government that will enslave Americans.
The report dives into the myriad histories of the participants, from a Montana state representative’s belief that the Chinese and Russian governments are funding conservation efforts to another speaker’s prior work apparently stealing artifacts from the battlefield of Little Bighorn.
One speaker highlighted in the report, though, points to a notably darker aspect of the conference — and of the Bundys’ prior efforts — that hasn’t gotten much attention: anti-Native American rhetoric and outright white supremacy when it comes to relations with tribal governments.
One speaker, Elaine Willman, is identified as the “most prominent anti-Indian activist in the Pacific Northwest.” And it’s not difficult to see why — or what’s motivating Willman (who did not respond to ThinkProgress’s request for comment). Willman’s Facebook page is littered with all manner of white supremacist memes, from asking “When is White History Month?” to one that read “You are WHITE. Your ancestors did not steal this country…they BUILT this country.”
Willman is also one of the faces of an anti-Native American group called the Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance (CERA). While the group hasn’t gained any national traction, it’s dedicated itself to unwinding tribal rights gained over the past few decades — including declaring tribal treaties as null and void.
A recent piece in High Country News highlighted Willman’s anti-Native American activism and the threat she poses to the rights tribes, federally recognized or otherwise, have fought for:
[CERA] has declared that treaties regarding land and water rights are no longer valid, advocated for state rights at the expense of tribal sovereignty, and repeatedly sown distrust between non-Natives and tribal governments on issues like taxation, voter fraud and land use. CERA, which calls tribal sovereignty a “myth,” works to undermine forms of self-determination — foundational issues for tribal nations that have borne the brunt of violent U.S. expansion for centuries.
Willman’s presence at the conference points to a deeper rot afflicting the American West that manifests itself in anti-Native American bigotry and hate crimes, which remain woefully under-covered in the national press.
“Anti-American Indian groups have received little-to-no public scrutiny, compared to their anti-black and anti-Latino counterparts,” HCN’s Anna Smith wrote. “Yet the number of hate crimes against Native Americans in 2016 was 4 percent nationwide, even though Indigenous people represent around 2 percent of the population.”
These are the types of speakers who will be joining Bundy in Whitefish on Saturday: anti-Native American activists, fringe politicians, and conspiracy theorists writ large. They may believe the American West belongs to them, but they’ll have a difficult time convincing others of the same — even if Secretary Zinke would rather avoid commenting on the matter altogether.