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Ernie Stensgar

Somebody asked me once, "What are you trying to do, buy back the reservation? I said "Duh, why not?" That was land that was set aside for us, was supposed to be forever and it's not.

Ernie Stensgar of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe at its war memorial, Plummer, ID.

Ernie Stensgar of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe at its
war memorial, Plummer, ID.

Marcia Franklin: Did the Aryan Nations concern you as a potential threat?

Ernie Stensgar: I think the potential was there....when things were happening in Coeur d'Alene it safe for us to go to Coeur d'Alene anymore? We don't want to be accosted and maybe we should stay in Spokane and keep doing our shopping up there and that was kind of the response that we were getting.

There was almost a fear that was prevalent on the reservation here. Although maybe no direct threats were there the imminent threats were there so people were concerned about that.

Franklin: Did you ever meet Butler?

Stensgar: No, I never did. We were presenting our lake case - we were going to court with Coeur d'Alene Lake and we had a presentation at the Federal courthouse in Coeur d'Alene and we were registering at the time and they came in force - the Aryan Nations did.

They had their uniforms on, their Nazi-style regalia if you will. About four or five of them came in dressed like that, and he was in a suit and tie. Of course they came up there but they didn't say anything in the meeting. They just stood back as an ominous threat if that's what they were trying to do, but they were more of a curiosity I believe than anything.

Franklin: As a state how have we progressed with tribal relations?

Stensgar: Number one I guess is the leadership recognizes the tribe's treaties, recognizes the sovereignty of the Coeur d'Alene tribe - the tribes in Idaho. The made public statements and they're saying that out loud and that goes a long way for acceptance by people, especially by bureaucracy.

But then the other aspect, I think the Human Rights Task Force took the lead in Idaho in the human rights arena trying to educate people about the Indian tribes in Idaho. Who are these people? They have a culture that is maybe different, but they should have the same respect that everyone has.

....but maybe in smaller cities....there is still the stereotype, there's still the racism that is there. It's readily available, just take a step with me some time and I'll show you.

Franklin: How does it manifest?

Stensgar: Personally, my wife and I were driving from St. Mary's Idaho to Coeur d'Alene - the scenic route - and just between I think Harrison and the freeway there's an elk farm that we had stopped and a group of young Caucasians, young adults were there and they saw us and as we were driving they drove their pickup truck right next to me and shadowed me and they made war whoops and other gestures that weren't very nice to us and as we stopped - we tried to let them go - they wouldn't go, they just stayed with us and they finally broke off.

Then we hit the freeway to go to Coeur d'Alene and they caught up to us and on the freeway - and were doing the same thing again - I used my cell phone and called the Idaho State Police and gave them the license number and I never heard anything from the state police or anything.

My wife was - I wouldn't say terrified but she was scared and I was very anxious. We didn't know what to expect from them.

I think other people have experienced verbatim slapping faces from people who accosted them, saying things about Indians, calling them bucks or squaws or hearing that in the conversation.

Franklin: That's a hate crime. Does that ever get pursued?

Stensgar: I don't believe so. I think over the years we've become thick-skinned. We native people here living on the reservation, we have border towns around us. We live in a community here so we've experienced prejudice throughout our lives and we just ignore it.

Franklin: Have you ever been followed in a store?

Stensgar: Shadowed? We call it shadowing. Yeah, we have, we have. My daughter Shirley and I were in Macy's and nearly picked up. The lady asked us if we needed help and we said no we wanted to browse, look around and we walked around, looked around but she was with us all the time. Just with you. I look at other patrons in the store and they weren't being followed, you know. That's shadowing and I'm not the only one who experiences that.

There is that sporting goods store and we were in there and shadowed again and asking us if we had enough money to pay an item which really upset me to say the least.

Talking to the Human Rights (Task Force) and having Tony and them deal with it really helped. And I think a lot of our people have spoken too, saying "Geez we're going up there now and we're being treated a lot differently and now things are working out really well."

Franklin: The tribe is quite powerful economically now. You have the casino, the wellness center; you've just gotten stimulus money. We can point to any number of industries you have and you donate money back into the system, not to mention the lake. Do you think that is showing progress in how you are being treated, or is that just showing determination on the part of the tribe?

Stensgar: I think a little bit of both. I think determination of the tribe but also it allows the tribe to utilize tools - today's tools - to tell our story a little bit, to educate people to where we're going.
For instance, we have issues with the state of Idaho now...and we spend money to go down and lobby our efforts and tell why we're doing things.

When we were doing our gaming initiative the Idaho State Legislature didn't want gaming in Idaho and said no to it, and no matter what kind of story we told them they were just opposed to it.

So we went to the people and as we went across the state of Idaho we found people who were listening to us and asking proper questions - I mean proper questions by not insulting you, but really wanted to know - who the tribe was and what we were doing and what we were going to do with the dollars.

And when they found that out they said "Hey, you know you were put there and you have a treaty and you're not doing anything bad, you're trying to work on behalf of your people, so why not allow you to have gaming?"

And I think education has gone a long way in helping people understand who we are.

Ernie Stensgar at the 10th anniversary of the
Aryan Nations verdict, September 7, 2010.

Franklin: You were at the 10th anniversary of the verdict, the Aryan Nations verdict. Has the problem gone away now that the Aryan Nations is gone?

Stensgar: Clearly it hasn't. If you read the media and you look at the crosses that are being burned and the propaganda that is being spread on individual lawns you know that it hasn't gone away. It is still there, it's just not as prevalent as it was. I think it will always be there and I think we'll always have to be on the lookout for it.

Franklin: In your talk that day you said we need to remember who we are. And you mentioned religious freedom as one of those things. What did you mean by that?

Stensgar: In the Indian world we have the sweats and so a lot of our people belong to the Native American Church and where peyote is utilized and frowned upon negatively. But people should be able to proclaim their god if you will any way they want and that is granted in the constitution of the United States.

We're all citizens, albeit we were Johnny-come-lately to become Americans but we're here so we're going to stay there.

It isn't special treatment that we're getting. Ceded land that doesn't belong to the tribe that was ceded to the United States government wasn't ceded, it was taken from us at the point of a gun so in actuality it was stolen land.

People use these really nice words about it - this is ceded land, allotted land, the Homestead Act. Well, those were all breaking treaties and we know that. So the tribes are making do with what they have in the best way they can and we think we're doing it. But people have to realize that.

We don't want to hurt anybody but right now we think we have to be forceful in acquiring what we want.

Somebody asked me once, "What are you trying to do, buy back the reservation? I said "Duh, why not?" That was land that was set aside for us, was supposed to be forever and it's not.

So people coming onto the reservation and living here is good. I think watching my children unite with the non-Indian community and be friends is good for everyone. I think there is understanding there and they get along a lot better but I think it took a lot of, a lot of hard work by a lot of extraordinary people for them to get to that point.

Franklin: The other thing you said was our immigrations policies - we really need to look hard at them. What were you trying to say there?

Stensgar: Nobody was addressing the Mexican problem, the Mexicans who are coming into the state of Idaho. Addressing it in a good way, in a respectful way, in a dignified way for everyone's benefit.

And clearly nobody wants bad people no matter what color they are. We want people who are hardworking, who would become good citizens, who would contribute to everyone's lifestyle and I think that there are Mexican people who do that.

I don't see anybody coming into Idaho from those people who don't want to work. I think the prices that we have for some of our foods are down because of those people and people ought to understand that.

I think they were taken advantage of in some ways and used and I think that the United States and I think the state of Idaho needs to take a really hard look at the immigration policy and make it right.

And if we want to keep people out, sure let's keep them out, but let's deal with those people who came in who have become good models and deal in a good way so that they can be here within the law and we can keep tabs on them but understand them and give them the dignity they deserve.

Everybody wants education. It's a foundation. Education, religious freedom, the right to live the American dream is here and everybody who comes to this country wants that. We don't want the drug people here; we don't want those kinds of people, but let's be really careful in how we go about this. But let's do it.

I didn't know the Mexican people. I didn't know them until recently. When we were doing our initiative, our gaming initiative, we reached out to the Latino community in Boise...and so from that meeting we were able to build a relationship with the Latino people.

Then we tried to form a political relationship with them that would further our causes. Those causes are education, housing, safety. So we found out that we had relations there.
..and as we talked we became very forthright to each other and we had stereotypes about the Mexican people - Indians did, and Mexican people have stereotypes about Indian people so we were able to talk about that.

And we recognized that....they were native people, that they were native to the continent and they felt like their land was stolen from them and I said "Hello, brother." And here we are.

So we had those meetings. We called them the Native American-Latino conference. I called it the Tortilla-Fried Bread conference. We had a lot of fun there. Getting to know those people and learning their work ethic, learning how much they thought about their families I could really relate to them and thought "Geez what a beautiful people they are, what a beautiful culture they have. Why are people so scared of them?" It makes one wonder.

I just believe that we should deal with them in a dignified way and a lawful way and at least get something on the books and let's deal with these people. Let's help them.

Franklin: Tribes take a long view. Where do you think we are right now?

Stensgar: When we first meet the Americans they try to kill us. Then they herd us up and put us onto the reservations and then we became show pieces and then we become those people who need to be dealt with. And the poverty programs game to us.

Now it is a different respect that we're getting. The wars happened and people recognize Native Americans' contributions to the different war theaters and the respect came from that.

I think politically tribes now have ventured forth into a more economic world. They are contributing more to political coffers as well as to private coffers and there is respect from that and people are saying "Hey, want to partner up? You want to talk about these issues? You want to come over here and think about these things?"

So I think there has been a little more emergence of the tribes into the world and more recognition of the tribes.

Franklin: I would like to think it's not just money.

Stensgar: Well yeah, I would too, I would too; but money opened the doors definitely. Money opened the doors.

We're just going to pay attention to what we have and get back what was promised to us. And we want to educate our people, we want them to realize the American dream. We want them to have a good way of living, want them to be good citizens and do what they want in this country in a good way.

Coeur d'Alene Tribe war memorial, Plummer, ID

Coeur d'Alene Tribe war memorial, Plummer, ID

Franklin: What is the significance of the war memorial the tribe built?

Stensgar: I thought back into the history of our tribe and they look at some of the people on that memorial as patriots. They fought the fight to preserve their land, to protect their families, to protect their homelands. They were killed for that. Then later on as we became citizens we still fought to protect our homeland and our way of life.

And today we're still doing it. We still have men and women in the armed forces serving throughout the world so there is kind of a feeling of patriotism for our country and the laws that we have. The treaties that we have with the United States government have to be protected. The constitution of the United States has to be protected because it allows that and that way it protects all of our peoples.

I don't view us as a warrior culture but it is important that our people - especially our young people - know that their fathers, their uncles, their grandfathers, their grandmothers, their mothers and fathers are fighting today and have always fought for this country. That it means something and that we should be proud of those people and really look at them as role models for what they did and who they were.

Franklin: What is the legacy of the people who worked on getting rid of the Aryan Nations?

Stensgar: I think it shows the spirit of humanity, the compassion that they have for people. they were able to reach out into the community and reach into people's hearts and say is this what you want people? Do you want a white supremacy group here? And of course people responded and said no we don't. But it took those leaders to get them to respond.

Franklin: What about the conditions that tribal members still live in?

Stensgar: It's atrocious. We have second world countries in the United States. I was able to go to Rapid City, this winter I think. I went down there for a national congress of American Indian meeting and we drove. And we drove through I think Northern Cheyenne (tribal land). I just couldn't believe the conditions that they lived in and I felt bad when I drove through there.

How can people in this day and age be treated like this or live like this? How can the United States government that is supposed to have the trust responsibility of these people allow that to happen?

Clearly, some tribes still need that help, they still need those dollars; they still need those government agencies to protect them and to make sure that they can reach those heights that they need live in the squalor that they are living in isn't right.

Franklin: How is it in Idaho?

Stensgar: I think we've come a long way. I still think we've allowed ghettos if you will to happen by our housing projects.

When I met with Governor Batt a few years ago I took him up into a housing project here in Plummer, right here in Plummer. I drove him there and it was the middle of the afternoon during the week day and we parked and I said, "Look Governor, see that basketball court?"

I didn't script this in any way, but there were young men out there, strong men out there playing basketball in the middle of the afternoon during a week day. I said "Those men out there they have families, they have kids. They should be working. They shouldn't be out there playing basketball, they should have something to do and there's nothing for them to do."

I said that's why we need gaming to help us so we can minister to them. And that wasn't very long ago. That was just recently that was happening. Today there are still adults who are out there playing basketball and we haven't reached them yet but we will, because we have the means to do it now and there aren't that many anymore.

When I was growing up these bars would be full of Indian people who were laying out there on the streets passed out drinking themselves into oblivion. They had no place to go. They had no spirit. Now you can drive through the town and you can look at the bars in any of our communities and you don't see the drunken Indian there.

I'm not saying it isn't there, it's just that more people have work now and it's not glorified....they're chastised as a matter of fact. "Hey, get a job, hey go to work or hey why don't you get to a treatment center, we can help you, or come join our group." We can address these issues.

Franklin: Those things didn't happen because the state helped you.

Stensgar: No. We have a little saying in the tribe - Nobody is going to help us. We have to do things for ourselves because nobody is going to come in and do it for us and so it is up to us to do it.

Franklin: You had to sue.

Stengar: We had to sue; we had to fight. We had to fight. But we changed Governor Batt's mind. And he became a staunch supporter of the tribe in the gaming area too.

Franklin: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Stensgar: I think we have a long way to go. I think that Native people need to understand other people too.

Franklin: You mean reach out the other way?

Stensgar: Right. I think we have to be understanding of other people as well. If we want people to understand us then we need to understand them. We have to respect other people's culture, other people's way of life, if we expect them to understand ours.