Political Matters
A great warrior walks on
Wednesday, February 08 2017
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Larry Leventhal, a wonderful human being and a dedicated legal advocate for American Indians, was remembered in words and in song at his funeral, Jan. 20th at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.

Larry Long sang the “Ballad of Larry Leventhal,” which included this verse: “Traveled the country over like a troubadour / The legal briefs he’d written scattered across the floor / Yet, he knew exactly where to find all that he wrote / The truth burned in his soul and he never gave up hope.”

Leventhal, who died Jan. 17 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 75, also was remembered by his brother-in-law, Bob Maisel, who spoke on behalf of the family. Maisel mentioned that Leventhal’s Hebrew name was Baruch (which means “blessed”), and his American Indian name was translated as “He Whose Voice Is Carried in the Wind”.

Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), told mourners in the packed sanctuary  that Leventhal was a “great warrior” for Indian people. Bellecourt said that the Jewish lawyer from St. Louis Park was involved in the incorporation of nearly every American Indian school, health clinic and housing project in the Twin Cities over recent decades.

During a recent phone conversation with Bellecourt, I asked him what he meant by the words “great warrior.”
“He was a lawyer in the battle for justice, a warrior,” replied Bellecourt. “Indian Country recognized him that way for all the work that he did for Indian people… I think he was a great warrior. He battled for justice, treaty rights, water and land issues, fishing and hunting, Indian religious freedom… culturally-based education, survival schools.”

The moving funeral service at Temple Israel concluded with three Ojibwe men playing hand drums and singing a traditional traveling-on song, as Leventhal’s casket was carried out of the sanctuary.

Leventhal was the treaty law expert on the legal team that represented Dennis Banks and Russell Means in the 1974 Wounded Knee leadership trial in St. Paul federal court. Leventhal was the last surviving member of the legal team that included William Kunstler, Mark Lane, Ken Tilsen and Doug Hall.

The U.S. government indicted hundreds of Indians after the 1973 occupation and paramilitary siege of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge reservation. Judge Fred Nichol, who presided at the trial, did not want to hear Leventhal’s arguments related to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between the United States and the Great Sioux Nation; however, as the trial wound on, he began to listen to the treaty rights arguments, according to Bellecourt. Nichol, who tried to rein in the flamboyant defense lawyers, eventually turned his wrath on the government prosecutors. The judge finally dismissed all charges against Banks and Means, and decried the government’s “sordid and misleading conduct” in the case.

Randy Furst wrote in the Star Tribune that the late lawyer and author Vine Deloria, Jr. once said of Leventhal: “He disarms so many opponents…. He comes across as a bumpkin. Then all of a sudden, you’re on the canvas, asking, ‘Who was that masked man?’”

Leventhal was one of the top five lawyers in the country on Indian treaty issues, according to Deloria, and “the only one who is white."

At the shiva (a traditional Jewish remembrance gathering) the evening after the funeral, officials of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe, including the current chairman, Mic Isham, remembered some of the good work Leventhal did for the tribe, including helping to establish WOJB, the FM radio station located on the LCO reservation.

Also at the shiva, Mary Al Balber (Red Cliff Ojibwe) read an email she sent to members of the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association (MAIBA). Leventhal was a “Special Member” of MAIBA, and Balber said he “advised LCO in what later became the Voigt decision, which reaffirmed our treaty rights. The Tribble brothers, LCO members who challenged the treaty rights by fishing and getting arrested, were students in Larry’s federal Indian law class taught at St. Scholastica. Talk about having a professor who made a difference!”

I will always be grateful for Larry’s dedicated work on behalf of my son, Max, who was ensnared in the state government’s prosecution of local organizers after the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Larry served as the attorney for Max, in what was called the RNC 8 case, which dragged on for more than two years in Ramsey County District Court, before it fizzled out.

And I will borrow Mary Al Balber’s words in closing this remembrance: “Gigawaabamin, Larry. We will see you again.”

Twin Metals derailed
Monday, January 09 2017
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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In its year-end review of the Top 10 stories of 2016, the Mesabi Daily News ( nominated for its No. 2 selection the “War on Twin Metals.” The newspaper sketched out its year-long coverage of the simmering controversy over a massive underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. The issue came to a climax in December, when the Department of the Interior announced that it would deny Twin Metals Minnesota’s application to extend mineral leases, which were first issued in 1966.

The group Mining Truth (, a consortium of Minnesota environmental groups and supporters (including Protect Our Manoomin), noted that the “immediate impact of the decision [to deny extension of the mineral leases] is that Twin Metals no longer holds the mineral rights to a wide swath of their proposed underground copper-nickel sulfide mine. In addition to the decision on the leases, the Department of Interior also announced it was commencing a review of all federal mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed. This will mean a 90 day public input period and an up to two year ‘time out’ where no federal mineral leases will be issued.”
Mining Truth added, that the U.S. Forest Service “also submitted an application to the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw key portions of the watershed that flows into the BWCAW [Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness] from new mineral permits and leases.”

Northeastern Minnesota has seen a mining rush in recent years, as corporations angle to begin copper-nickel operations. The area has been the site of iron ore and taconite mining for decades, but sulfide mining is something new to the state; and the Ojibwe bands and environmentalists fear that mine waste run-off will pollute streams, rivers and groundwater – and that sulfate pollution will decimate wild rice beds in areas ceded in federal treaties. In the 19th century land cession treatie, the Ojibwe bands gave up vast tracts of ancestral territory, and reserved their rights to hunt, fish and gather in these areas in perpetuity. These subsistence rights will be of little value if the land and water are poisoned by toxic mine waste, as has happened with hard rock mining operations all across the American West.

As expected, Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, decried the federal decision not to extend its mineral leases. On Dec. 15, the company said it was “greatly disappointed” by the decision of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S.Forest Service “to deny renewal of two of the company’s long-standing and valid mineral leases in Minnesota, and to initiate actions to withdraw federal lands and minerals from future exploration and development. If allowed to stand, the BLM-USFS actions will have a devastating impact on the future economy of the Iron Range and all of Northeast Minnesota, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in investment in the region. Further, this unprecedented decision is contrary to the overwhelming majority of local and regional citizens and communities who support mining and believe mining can be done responsibly in this region.”
The Twin Metals statement noted that it has already invested $400 million in the mine project. The company’s website declares that Minnesota “has the potential to be a global epicenter for strategic metals mining. There are more than 4 billion tons of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and other metal resources contained in northern Minnesota’s Duluth Complex, the largest known undeveloped deposit of strategic metals in the world.”

While the feds have dealt a blow to Twin Metals’ mining scheme, PolyMet Mining, a Canadian firm, is still on track to develop a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. The feds expressed concern that the Twin Metals project could pollute the pristine Boundary Waters wilderness; but PolyMet’s NorthMet project poses the same threat to rivers and streams flowing into Lake Superior. Actually, hydrologists working with the Ojibwe bands have contended that the water flow models used in the NorthMet environmental review were flawed – mine wastewater could flow south toward Lake Superior or north into the Boundary Waters. In any case, Minnesota approved the final environmental impact statement for the NorthMet project last March, after reports and hearings that stretched back 10 years. The company still has to win approval for a numerous permits before it can start digging Up North.

Regarding the previously mentioned “war on Twin Metals,” the Mesabi Daily News predicted: “This issue isn’t going away quietly in 2017, as it sets up for a big fight between the environmental left and the incoming Donald Trump administration on the right.”

The Looming Trumpocalypse
Tuesday, December 06 2016
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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It should be abundantly clear by now that Donald Trump suffers from some kind of mental illness, and that it probably wasn’t a great idea to elect such an impaired person as president.

After waging a vicious and vulgar campaign for the presidency, Trump won a majority of votes in the electoral college; we now await the formation of his administration, which likely will be an agglomeration of Tea Party stalwarts, racists and bigots.

The Celebrity Apprentice politician doesn’t have much going on between his ears, as far as grasping the fine points of public policy. For example, he recently told a group of New York Times editors and reporters that he has an “open mind” about the need to confront climate change.

“We’re going to look very carefully,” replied Trump, in response to a question from Times columnist Tom Friedman. “It’s one issue that’s interesting because there are few things where there’s more division than climate change.”

As some have pointed out about this exchange, Trump is making a virtue of his ignorance on the topic of global warming, the paramount environmental threat of our time. But apart from his stupendous lack of knowledge in this area, Trump seems to be mulling over individuals to lead the Interior and Energy departments that are from Big Oil and the climate denial faction.

For starters, former Alaska governor Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin is said to be on the short list of candidates to lead the Interior Department. She likely would favor shooting big game from aircraft in national parks.

Writing recently for Pacific Standard (, Jimmy Tobias noted that Doug Domenech is leading Trump’s transition team for the Interior Department. Domenech is a former Virginia secretary of natural resources and a George W. Bush administration Interior Department staffer. Domenech also is director of the Fueling Freedom Project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. According to a press report, the project’s stated mission is to “explain the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.”

It’s unclear if David Bernhardt, another former Bush Interior official, is still involved in Trump’s transition team for Interior. Bernhardt is a Washington, D.C. lobbyist who has represented oil and mining interests.

Regarding Bernhardt and Domenech, Tobias points out: “They’re the guys helping the president-elect staff a bureaucracy that manages 500 million acres of federal land, implements the Endangered Species Act, runs the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and controls key oil and gas leasing programs, among other duties. And their ascension is an ugly omen for this country’s public lands and wildlife.”

Some other names have been floated for Interior Secretary, including Bob Beauprez, a former Colorado congressman and bison rancher.

“I think he’s far too extreme to be appointed as the steward of our national parks and our western cultural heritage,” Pete Maysmith, the director of Conservation Colorado, an environmental advocacy group in Denver, told the Denver Post, regarding Beauprez as Interior secretary. “Certainly the voters have said a couple times that he doesn’t represent their values because they haven’t elected him. Beyond that, there’s a record to look at and it’s not an inspiring record.”

Beauprez ran for Colorado governor twice and lost both times.

Also, Forrest Lucas, an Indiana native and the founder of Lucas Oil, has been reported as a person to head Interior. In 2006, he won the naming rights for Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts of the NFL. Lucas and his wife reportedly have contributed $50,000 to the gubernatorial campaigns of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

A story about Lucas in Politico noted that environmentalists have warned against putting someone with such a background in charge of Interior.

“Putting an oil executive in charge of our public lands and precious coasts in places like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida is a virtual guarantee that Trump’s promise to throw open season on drilling in our special places will come true if he’s elected,” said Khalid Pitts, the Sierra Club’s national political director.

And Trump likely will put some fox in charge of the hen house, so to speak, when it comes to picking a person to direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Leading the EPA transition team is another Washington lobbyist, Myron Ebell, who is a prominent opponent of climate change action.

When we look at energy development on and near tribal lands – the Dakota Access oil pipeline, for example – the incoming Trump administration likely will take the pillage and plunder approach. And we can expect conflicts over land rights to become human rights issues when push comes to shove across this country.

Natives in the Running
Monday, November 07 2016
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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The 2016 elections could see big strides forward for American Indians seeking elective office. While there are several Native candidates vying for congressional seats, the real action is in state legislatures. In Minnesota, for example, seven American Indians are competing in state House and Senate races, including DFL incumbents Susan Allen (Rosebud Sioux), of Minneapolis, and Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Band of Ojibwe), of St. Louis Park.

Veteran journalist Mark Trahant has created a spreadsheet of American Indian candidates running for state legislative seats on his website ( In Montana, 10 American Indian candidates are running for legislative posts; Oklahoma is a close second with nine Native candidates.

Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, has worked for both tribal and big city daily newspapers. He is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota, at Grand Forks. We talked on the phone in late October.

Getting back to Congress, there are only two American Indian members of the U.S. House: Tom Cole (Chickasaw Tribe) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee Nation), they are both Republicans from Oklahoma.

Trahant specified that the American Indian congressional caucus amounts to .037 percent – a bit more than one-third of one percent – of the body’s total membership. However, in the case of Tom Cole, who was first elected in 2002, to represent Oklahoma’s Fourth District, Trahant said he plays an influential role.

“When the issues involve tribes, and especially, tribal sovereignty, Cole has been one of the most important members in the history of Congress,” Trahant wrote in October. “What makes Cole so important? He can argue the case within the Republican caucus, and, even better, with the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian Country, but for his idea of what a conservative party should be. And that means being inclusive.”

Cole reportedly is supporting Trump for president; however, Trahant told me, “As a Republican, he’s been able to do things that others haven’t been. He’s in the leadership. The Violence Against Women Act, for example, never would have happened without Cole.”

Apparently, Trahant was referring to the 2013 extension of the law, which was opposed by a number of GOP House members because of provisions related to the jurisdiction of tribal courts and the inclusion of same-sex couples.

Asked about where the Indian vote is significant across the country, Trahant said that the “most significant for congressional districts is the Arizona First District, where [Indian voters are] more than 22 and a half percent.” That district is represented by Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who is challenging Sen. John McCain this year.

“There’s no Native candidate in that race,” Trahant added. Arizona’s First District includes the huge Navajo reservation. “I’ve written that that will be a Native seat; it’s just a question of when.”

And Trahant points to three American Indians, all Democrats, contending for U.S. House seats.

There’s Chase Iron Eyes, from Standing Rock, who’s running for No. Dakota’s lone seat in the House. Of course, the world is watching Standing Rock, which is leading the fight to protect water resources from the Dakota Access Pipeline. Asked about Iron Eyes’ chances, Trahant said, “That’s a tough one.” If there is a huge wave for Hillary Clinton, a tsunami-sized wave, perhaps Iron Eyes could go to Washington.

In a more competitive race, Denise Juneau, a Democrat, is running for Montana’s U.S. House seat. In 2008, Juneau, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes and of Blackfeet ancestry, became the first American Indian woman ever elected to an executive statewide office. She was elected to a second term as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2012.

The Daily Kos website recently reported that the House Majority PAC would invest $451,000 for TV ads on behalf of Juneau’s campaign, “signaling they think she has a shot against GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke.” Polls show a close race.

Also running for a House seat is Joe Pakootas, who could become the first former tribal leader ever elected to Congress, according to Trahant. Pakootas, the former chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes, is running as a Democrat in Washington’s Fifth District.

“I think this is going to be a record year,” Trahant concluded. “The opportunity to elect the first Native American woman to Congress is huge. People are taking advantage of it.”

In the end, Trump’s horrific crash-and-burn presidential campaign might contain a silver lining for American Indian political contenders.

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