January 22, 2017

Tribe jails man over Facebook postings


HELENA, Mont. (AP) – A Blackfeet tribal citizen jailed over Facebook postings critical of the tribe’s governing council said last week that his arrest should encourage more people to speak out against what he called corrupt leadership on the northwestern Montana reservation.

Bryon Farmer was released July 16 on $500 bail after spending five days in a Browning jail over posts made to his Blackfeet Against Corruption Facebook page. He was charged with violating a tribal ordinance outlawing statements meant to harm, discredit or expose a council member to hatred, ridicule or contempt.

Farmer, 33, said he was arrested for exercising his right to free speech.

“I was held against my will for speaking against the tribe for all the corruption they put the people through,” he told The Associated Press as he was driving home to Great Falls. “Not once did I threaten one person on the Blackfeet council.”

Tribal attorney Sandra Watts did not respond to a request for comment. The Flathead Beacon, which first reported the story, reported that tribal Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. said Farmer’s arrest was necessary to protect the council members.

“We were within our rights as a tribe to protect the interests of our members,” Sharp told the Kalispell newspaper. “When they cross the line and start inciting violence, that’s when you have to take it seriously.”

The posts on the Blackfeet Against Corruption Facebook page have been sharp in their criticism of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. Since last year, five council members have been suspended or removed in intra-tribal disputes, leaving what is supposed to be a nine-member panel partially vacant and ruling under an emergency declared by Sharp.

Critics such as Farmer say Sharp and his allies are ruling by decree, and there is no emergency. Some of the suspended council members have asked for Bureau of Indian Affairs to intervene in what they call a constitutional crisis, with no results.

Farmer was arrested July 12, a day before he said he planned to unveil a float at North American Indian Days that would show the Blackfeet people won’t tolerate corrupt leaders.

“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,” Farmer wrote.

Farmer said July 17 there was no float and he was attempting to goad tribal leaders into acting against him. He and a few others were planning to peacefully march in the parade during the annual celebration in Browning, he said

“I didn’t really want to get arrested. I wanted to prove a point that if you speak against these people they will hurt you. And they hurt me. I didn’t know it would be this bad,” he said.

Farmer, a student in Great Falls, was arrested while attending a family pig roast in Browning. He said 15 officers showed up at the home to take him away, and only when he arrived at the jail did he learn he was charged with violating Blackfeet Ordinance 67.

The ordinance was passed in the 1980s to protect tribal leaders from threats, assaults, intimidation or interference in the course of their duties.

In 2009, the ordinance was amended to penalize other acts against council members, including “harassment without merit, the distribution of false or misleading documents or writings, the making of slanderous or libelous statements, false innuendoes or misleading statements meant to harm injure, discredit or causing the member to be exposed to hatred, ridicule or contempt.”

The penalty is a year in jail and a possible $5,000 fine.

Farmer said he was offered a plea agreement Saturday for a nine-month suspended sentence and a $500 fine, but chief tribal judge Allie Edwards would not sign off on the deal. Instead, the judge ordered a $5,000 cash bond and sought the names of all the people with whom Farmer was working, he said.

He refused and his attorney filed an appeal with the tribe’s appellate court, which transferred the bond so that he only had to pay $500 to be released.

Farmer said he plans to go to trial over the charge, and he predicted his arrest will only draw more support for his cause.

“This made us stronger,” he said. “Anybody can beat a corrupt government – it takes numbers.”

Tribal councilman Paul McEvers, one of the five council members suspended or removed in the past year, was charged with the violating the same ordinance nearly a year ago.

McEvers’ suspension is only a piece of the political upheaval the tribe has experienced over the last year.

Former Councilman Jay St. Goddard and suspended Councilman Jay Wells were recently convicted of holding illegal big-game hunts on the reservation for country musicians being filmed for an outdoors television show.

Another suspended councilmember, Cheryl Little Dog, is suing for her reinstatement.

Current Councilman Shannon Augare on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to DUI, reckless driving and endangering a peace officer over allegations that he fled a Glacier County sheriff’s deputy who pulled him over for drunken driving.

Bryon Farmer was released July 16 on $500 bail after spending five days in a Browning jail over posts made to his Blackfeet Against Corruption Facebook page.