Crazy and Confused, Con Job, or Cult?
The Sovereign Citizen Movement is all of the above, and then some
You might have seen them at meetings, talking for as long as they were tolerated, sometimes for hours. Rambling on and on about archaic laws and confused legalisms. You might have even grasped some of the main points: The government is a corporation. The courts follow Admiralty law. Cashing in your SIN card can get you as much as $7 million. Declaring yourself sovereign enables you to legally drive without a driver’s license. Hell, we can make our OWN driver’s licenses. That’s always a popular one.
You may not have known it at the time, but you just had an introduction to the bizarre world of the sovereign citizen movement, today one of the fastest growing segments of the extreme right patriot movement in the US. And one which has a long association with white supremacist groups in that country. The odd thing is, it has gained a following among some Native sovereigntists in Canada.
I remember attending a grassroots Native gathering in northern BC a few years ago. I was ‘over-hearing’ one sovereign discuss his recent experience of not having a driver’s license and being pulled over by the police. When the cop asked for the man’s license, he produced one manufactured by a sovereign citizen’s group. The cop said it was a useless piece of paper, he needed to see a real driver’s license. The man then pulled up his sleeve, exposing his skin, and declared that this was his ‘license’. Being a sovereign, he didn’t need a government-issued license.
I strained to ‘over-hear’ the conclusion to the man’s story. He sounded so confident, so sure of himself. Had he done it? Had he actually defied ‘the Man’ and beat him down with the strange, convoluted, and ultimately confusing legalese that is the doctrine of sovereign citizenry? No.
No, he most certainly had not. He and his family had to call a friend to come and pick them up on the side of the highway as their vehicle was seized and towed to some lonely, desolate parking lot, where he could collect it after paying a fine.
As I was to later learn, this was a common consequence of being a sovereign, though minor in comparison to other cases. In the US there have been scores of deaths and shootings, bombings, armed standoffs, and conspiracies to kidnap and kill government officials.
Due to the growing influence of the sovereign citizen doctrine among some Native peoples over the last few years, Art Manuel, head of the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, issued the following statement in April 2010:
“I think this strategy [of sovereign citizenry] totally undermines our legitimate claim to our sovereignty and jurisdiction based on our Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. We should not mix up our international, historical, cultural, constitutional, judicial and economic grounds for this kind of counterproductive and totally anti-indigenous based concept in our effort to have our Aboriginal and Treaty Rights recognized on the ground. I know we have spent hours within a one to three day meetings listening to this strategy and it has taken time away from talking our issues from an Indigenous Peoples point of view.
“It is clear that these American right wing sovereign citizenship “Common Law Groups” would never recognize Aboriginal People because they already assume that according to their Sovereign Citizenship they have all jurisdiction they need over our lands already. We need to be aware of this… “
Manuel has his own interpretation of what Indigenous sovereignty is and how it can be achieved. I don’t agree with it, but at least its logical. I can understand his position, there’s legitimacy in the laws and statutes he refers to. They’re ‘legitimate’ because they’re actually based on laws used by the courts. That’s not the case with the sovereign citizens.
Sovereign Citizen: Who Are They and What Do They Want?
Some commentators have described the sovereign citizen movement in the US as “right-wing anarchists” who seek to live without government authority. But this is a crude simplification, one that misses the obvious. The sovereigns, along with the broader Christian patriot movement they are a part of, aren’t against the concept of the state (as anarchists are). Instead, they seek a return to the form of government they believe existed when the United States was established, circa 1776. At that time, white male property owners were the only ones considered citizens of the newly formed states.
At its core, the sovereign citizen movement is white supremacist and patriarchal, seeking to establish a Christian theocracy based on a fundamentalist interpretation of both the Bible and the US Constitution. God Bless America.
Sovereign citizen doctrine incorporates a boggling amount of ‘evidence’ to back up its claims, usually compiled in massive stacks of files or CDs. These are bits and pieces of old common law, the US Constitution, the Magna Carta, and other arcane legal codes. Like the Bible, there are ‘gurus’ who travel the circuit teaching their own versions of sovereign law, which vary greatly but which share the same basic formula.
According to sovereign citizens, as well as many white supremacist groups, the 14th Amendment is unconstitutional. This is the one that gave blacks citizenship in 1868, following the US Civil War. Sovereigns today claim it created a second class citizen, who are unknowingly bound by legal contracts (such as driver’s licenses, taxes, etc.) to the federal government. As ‘naturals’, sovereign, or Freemen, they are citizens of states and, thus, are exempt from federal laws and codes.
The highest level of legal authority sovereigns accept as Constitutional is the county Sheriff, who is duty bound to protect citizens from not only other citizens, but also from federal officials. Failure of a sheriff to follow their oaths of office can be punished by hanging.
Sovereigns claim that, at the time of the Civil War, the north imposed Admiralty law, a form of martial law, over the union as a whole, and that this has never been repealed. They claim the only law they are bound to follow are those in the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and common-law.
Common law was what regulated relations between people for centuries prior to the imposition of state institutions and legal codes. Common law were those laws everyone knew not to break, such as theft and murder. It formed the original basis for legal codes later developed by states, including England.
As part of their strategy, sovereigns advocate the establishment of common law courts. These have been used to hold trials of government officials for treason, most often finding them guilty. The most common verdict from these common law courts has been death by hanging. Numerous sovereign citizen groups, including members of the Montana Freemen, have been charged with conspiracy to kidnap and kill judges, attorneys, and sheriffs, whom they accused of violating their Constitutional duties.
Along with death sentences, common law courts also ‘impose’ huge fines against those convicted. These usually come in the form of liens (claims of debt usually made on property and accounts) filed against targeted officials. These have been far more common than alleged conspiracies to kidnap and kill officials. Although they are bogus, they can negatively affect property sales and business transactions until the liens are removed, which can cost large amounts of time and money (referred to as “paper terrorism”). These bogus liens are used as collateral for sovereign citizens to use in the manufacture of their own cheques, and they frequently attempt to cash these in as payments on taxes, fines, or even consumer goods (another reason many sovereign citizens end up in prison, charged with fraud and, in some states, criminal syndicalism).
Sovereign citizens advocate redeeming one’s Social Security card in order to collect large amounts of cash. This is because the federal government deposits money in a secret bank account for each person who is born and claims a social security number. This money is used as collateral by the government to carry out its business. It’s a secret, but the sovereigns have found a legal loophole: simply by redeeming your number—renouncing it and cashing in—those who declare their sovereignty are entitled to millions of dollars.
As part of asserting one’s sovereignty, citizens are also advised to destroy their social security cards, driver’s licenses, etc., in order to sever all legal contracts that have been made with the federal government. Like the bogus liens and cheques, this belief is another one that gets many sovereign citizens further embroiled in the courts and prisons.
The rejection of federal laws and government authority, not surprisingly, leads to frequent encounters with police. This has resulted in numerous shootings and fatalities over the years, due to the particular focus on the 2nd Amendment and the movement’s obsession with firearms. In 1996, an 81 day standoff occurred between the FBI and some two dozen Freemen in Montana. This incident is seen as one of the main catalysts for the spread of sovereign citizenry throughout the US. In only the most recent case, in May 2010, two Arkansas police were shot and killed by a father and son who followed sovereign citizen doctrine.
Perhaps the most infamous of sovereign citizen practitioners was Terry Nichols, who in the early 1990s attempted to use the doctrine in defense of his not paying fines and child support. Nichols was charged, along with Timothy McVeigh, in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, which killed 168 people.
Today, the sovereign citizen movement is estimated have some 300,000 hard-core followers in the US (according to a 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center report). In the US, the combined effects of Christian fundamentalism, conspiracy theories, promotion of firearms, declining socio-economic conditions, as well as obvious psychological problems, has given rise to a large, overwhelmingly white and rural, extreme right, one that is both armed and dangerous.
Before the Sovereign, there was Posse Comitatus
Long before the US sovereign citizen movement emerged in the 1990s, there was the Posse Comitatus. Established in 1969 in Oregon by Henry Beach, the Posse would gain a broad membership across the US over the next two decades, primarily as an anti-tax group. Beach was a former state organizer for the fascist Silvershirts during the 1940s, and was a follower of the white supremacist Christian Identity religion (as was co-founder William Potter Gale, in California).
Posse Comitatus is Latin for “power of the county.” According to Posse doctrine, the highest legal official is the county sheriff. By deputizing citizens, the sheriff can form a posse to back him up. The sheriff badge and noose became the most common Posse symbols (including a national publication, The Posse Noose Report).
Since the founding of the US, according to Posse beliefs, corrupt officials had illegally usurped the Constitution and made the federal government a tyrannical power, fraudulently imposing its control over the states. They were especially opposed to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which created a second class of citizens.
Because the federal government was ‘illegal’, citizens were under no obligation to obey its laws or regulations. The Posse advocated driving without licenses, ignoring federal gun laws and business licenses, not paying federal taxes, etc. They promoted common law as a basic legal code.
The Posse was also intensely anti-Semitic, and many prominent members (like founder Henry Beach, as well as co-founder William Potter Gale) were adherents to Christian Identity, a white supremacist doctrine which asserts that Jews are the literal descendents of Satan. The Posse incorporated conspiracy theories about a Jewish-Communist plot to take over the world, one which had already infiltrated the US federal government. The entire banking and money system of the US was itself a part of the great swindle the Jews had pulled off, through which they exerted near total control over society.
The conspiracy theories of the Posse, combined with their warped religious beliefs and hostile attitude towards the federal government, naturally led to the forming of paramilitary groups as well as confrontations with law enforcement agencies. One of the most well known of these was the case of Gordon Kahl, who, along with his wife, shot and killed two police officers in Arkansas, in 1982, when they attempted a traffic stop. Several months later, Kahl himself was killed during another shootout with US Marshals.
Today, the Posse is not nearly as large as it once was, having declined as its leaders passed away, went to prison, or were killed. But its beliefs and conspiracy theories have greatly influenced the extreme right in the US, including the doctrine of today’s sovereign citizen movement.
The Native Connection: The Sovereign ©Squamish™ Government
So how is it possible that the sovereign citizen doctrine, having its roots in the white racist Christian right, has gained adherents among Native grassroots traditionalists? First, I would say, most have no idea of what the real origins of this movement are. In fact, the sovereign citizen doctrine, like any other pseudo-religious belief, can be interpreted in many different ways, to serve many different purposes.
One example is the Republic of Texas (ROT), a sovereign citizen movement that claimed Texas never legally became a part of the US. As citizens of the ROT, they claim they are not subject to US laws. In 1997 the ROT was involved in an armed standoff with Texas police. Outside of Texas, many in the patriot movement debated their stance. Some claimed their duty was to uphold the Constitution, not to assist a breakaway Republic, and refused to support the ROT.
In Canada, sovereign citizen advocates have replicated most of the rhetoric of their US counterparts, simply omitting reference to the US Constitution and replacing it with that of Canada (along with the usual hodge podge of legal codes and common law). There are adherents in Quebec who, most likely, have some theory similar to that of the ROT concerning Quebecois sovereignty. But there is one group that has asserted its sovereignty based on a combination of traditional Indigenous sovereignty, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP), and sovereign citizen doctrine: the Sovereign ©Squamish™ Government, based in Mission, BC.
The Squamish, of course, are the descendents of the original Indigenous inhabitants of the Vancouver area, now encompassing Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, and the Squamish region north to Whistler. Numbering several thousand, today they live on a number of reserves in North Vancouver and Squamish, as well as in the Metro Vancouver area.
I first became aware of the Sovereign Squamish Government (SSG) in May 2008, when group members and supporters, led by “Hereditary Squamish Chief Kiapilano,” briefly occupied the Squamish band office and declared a common law jurisdiction over the building, at the same time evicting the band council chief, Bill Williams. The ‘take over’ ended shortly after RCMP arrived and the building was closed for the rest of the day.
Over the years, they have announced various government-like measures, such as banning members of the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from Squamish land, as well as ordering the eviction of churches in Vancouver (both as part of a campaign around the legacy of Residential Schools).
These types of actions, what one would expect of a traditional Indigenous group committed to anti-colonial resistance, are also typical of the sovereign citizen movement.
The very spelling of Sovereign ©Squamish™ Government, with its copyright and trademark symbols, is typical of sovereign citizen logic. It’s as if double-stamping legal symbols will make it more potent, like the tedious reciting of legal codes will eventually succeed in a mental war of attrition, as though sheer will and consistency will somehow make the unreal become real.
This use of legal symbols, spellings and capitalization of certain words, are also part of the sovereign citizen methods. As if just the right spelling and grammar imparts greater legal rights. Another example is the practise of some to place commas in their name, as does for example patriot author James Wesley, Rawles. In some cases, sovereigns refuse to cross into the court room fearing that it will place them in the jurisdiction of the court. Or they refuse to participate in a court where a national flag has a gold fringe, a sure sign that it’s an Admiralty court.
The SSG’s Constitution, available along with other documents at http://www.sovsquamishgov.org, contains a mish-mash of laws typical of sovereign citizen doctrine, this one combing traditional Squamish longhouse law, the Haudenosaunee’s Great Law of Peace, as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People:
“Constitution – Great Laws of Peace and other ©Squamish / Skwxwú7mesh™ Longhouse laws
Members of the government are one with the ©Squamish / Skwxwú7mesh™ land. Our inherent rights and powers with this nation is governed by our inalienable right to adopt the Iroquois Great Laws of Peace combined with UNDRIP as our Constitution for the Sovereign ©Squamish / Skwxwú7mesh™ Government.”
In “Chief Kiapilanoq’s” welcoming message to the SSG’s website, a general overview of the group’s beliefs are presented, including the rationalization for not using a driver’s license or other government issued documents, again echoing many concepts of sovereign citizen doctrine:
“Mission Statement: As a hereditary sovereign leader, I am Siyam ©Kiapilanoq/CAPILANO™ and it is my pleasure to present you with my vision and mission of freedom for humanity by the stroke of a pen for peace on Earth pursuant to the Great laws of Peace adopted from the Iroquois Nation.
As a leader, I am sovereign because I do not collect or benefit from a ‘pension’ that is issued by the Receiver General administrators from the Federal Government of Canada. I do not have a status card from INAC or driver’s license from ICBC, or a passport from the Citizenship Department or carry a provincial/State BC Health card. I do not vote and I do not file tax returns. This is the strength of my conscious truth in writing to claim sovereignty.
“SG members are real sovereign people who know that they live on land and are not taxed Corporations/Persons who are subjects that comply to Admiralty/Maritime jurisdiction governance through man made Acts, Statutes, laws, by-laws, rules and regulations. The ©Squamish / Skwxwú7mesh™ Government has no contract with tax agencies that are governed by Admiralty/Maritime jurisdiction administrators / regulators.”
A letter from the SSG to the BC Utilities Commission in February 2010, following an attempt to gain intervenor status during a hearing, shows the sovereign citizen doctrine as applied by the SSG, this time addressing the troubling issue of that Admiralty law and providing a good taste of the legalese commonly used:
“RE: ADMIRALTY/MARITIME JURISDICTION REGISTRATION
“Further to your request for a registration compliance into your tax jurisdiction in order to obtain a third party intervenor position that is recognized by your Corporation. The purpose of this Notice is to inform you that we do not ‘register’ any of our members into Admiralty/Maritime compliance because we are not assumed or presumed tax subjects. As freemen and freewomen, we do not file taxes to fund the Security Bonds in order to become recognized members with Admiralty/Maritime jurisdiction administrators.
“As sovereigns we have the unalienable right to contract by our Given Family Names which is Copyright and Trademark protected. We are governed by Common law jurisdiction, laws of the Land for the people by the people.”
What the SSG has done is combine aspects of traditional Squamish social organization, the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, the UN DRIP, and common law derived from sovereign citizen doctrine. The end result is another variation of sovereign citizen beliefs, this time intertwined with concepts of Indigenous sovereignty.
The potential for confusion among Indigenous peoples, Native sovereigntists, and non-Native allies, is obvious. So too is the appeal for genuine Native sovereigntists, who may be attracted to the emphasis on individual sovereignty from the colonial state (as opposed to the collective sovereignty, the actual liberation, of people and territory).
The fact that sovereign citizen adherents can be found mingled amongst Native sovereignty land defenders is cause for concern. Their ‘solutions’ don’t work and usually make matters worse, frequently resulting in heavy fines, criminal charges, foreclosure of homes, loss of vehicles, and sometimes imprisonment. What’s more, they send otherwise intelligent people on a wild goose chase through Conspiracy World©™.
The Conspiracy of Conspiracies
Conspiracy theories tend to ensnare desperate and stressed out people, and especially those who have undergone some kind of traumatic experience. It is no coincidence that the beliefs of groups such as Posse Comitatus gained a widespread following amongst white farmers during the 1970s and ’80s. During this time, hundreds of thousands lost their farms to massive debts they had accumulated (the farm crisis). Suicide became a leading cause of unnatural deaths among farmers, who were as a group experiencing the trauma of losing their way of life.
Now consider the oppressed living conditions of Natives, Blacks, and other people of colour in either the US or Canada. Natives have undergone the trauma of a recent, rapid, and violent colonization. In all these communities, people are facing far higher levels of stress and trauma than farmer John White losing his farm. Therefore it is no surprise that conspiracy theories are also fairly common among these peoples and the respective social movements that arise from them.
Over the years and during my travels, I have encountered bizarre conspiracy theories among Natives, blacks, and Chicanos, sometimes overlapping with more general theories and at other times being culturally distinct. The black conspiracy theories I heard were largely derived from the Nation of Islam, which asserts that the white race was created through laboratory experiments in a long-distant past when blacks had established a highly advanced civilization.
At Stoney Point/Ipperwash, I met Native land defenders who believed in an alien conspiracy theory that told of an intergalactic war between two different alien races, one evil and one good. Their struggle was unfolding here on earth, and the evil aliens had allied themselves with a global elite who sought to rule the world. Area 51 and all that, very hush hush, other than the website trumpeting the truth, the source of the conspiracy theory I later learned (the sacred scripture being passed around via a print out from the site).
I’ve also met Natives passing around copies of books written by David Icke, a New Age conspiracy theorist who ‘reveals’ that the global elite are actually reptilian aliens who can shape-shift into humans, and who eat human babies. They have controlled the rise and fall of empires through the ages, but through a spiritual shift in consciousness by the human race, their time is short.
Most often, however, conspiracy theories among Natives are usually recycled versions of those peddled by white supremacists for decades. Sometimes it’s the Illuminati, or the Freemasons, the Bildebergers or the Trilateral Commission. It’s almost always the Jews, of course. I remember during one Indigenous youth conference in Vancouver when a delegate from Oklahoma got up to speak and, as part of his ‘ice-breaking’ routine, joked that Hitler hadn’t killed enough Jews.
Conspiracy theories appear to have the answers to all of life’s mysteries, that is what, in part, makes them so popular and somehow satisfying. But like crack cocaine, you always want more, and that’s the unsatisfying bit, the one that can never be soothed. How deep does the rabbit hole go? Like a moth to a flame, there’s definitely some kind of pursuit of knowledge going on here, even if it’s crazed.
Conspiracy theories are also successful when they reinforce prior prejudices or belief systems. Anti-Semitism has been so widespread for so long that is often already an established belief prior to any real contact with conspiracy theories.
Conspiracies are most often circulated through the Internet, an ideal method of distributing unsubstantiated theories. In fact, along with other factors, one of the main reasons the patriot militia movement grew so fast in the 1990s was the Internet. It was one of the first social movements to communicate its message primarily through the web (along with the Zapatistas and others). There is also a vast network of right-wing radio shows, DVD’s, TV broadcasts, public forums, private meetings, books and publications available, all ‘documenting’ the conspiracy and plotting ways to fight it.
But the conspiracy circus is not just in cyber-space or broadcoast over short wave radio. It emerges from a social movement that also claims religious, political, and legal motivations. There are real social aspects to it: gatherings and conferences, workshops, meetings, groups. Isolated individuals suddenly become part of a larger social movement that seems bigger than life, almost spiritual in significance. There is no doubt new initiates are empowered both by belonging to a social group as well as the ‘knowledge’ they have attained.
In the case of the sovereign citizen movement, their pseudo-legalistic conspiracy theories also offer solutions to legal and financial problems. Many of those involved in the most high profile cases of the sovereign citizen movement have been those facing the foreclosure of their homes or farms, who owed massive debts or taxes, fines, credit card or child support payments, etc.
Once people accept the sovereign citizen doctrine and its attenuating conspiracy theories, it can be very difficult to communicate with them. There is no logic or rationale to their understanding of the world. They see only a vast conspiracy, which very few are aware of and the rest are either part of it or slaves to it.
The ultimate conspiracy theory is probably the Bible. It’s the same old story about good versus evil, in this case Christians versus the Anti-Christ, God versus Satan. The real concern for modern day Christians is identifying the Anti-Christ, as well as those troubling tales about tribulations and apocalyptic battles of Armageddon. But what the Bible also does, along with everything else, is provide its believers with rules and regulations for an entire way of life.
It is at this point that the sovereign citizen movement really takes on the character of a religious cult, although not a typical cult built around a dominant personality. It is instead an autonomous and decentralized network of believers, with a sprinkling of gurus and teachers, whose scriptures are old archaic laws and legal codes most people have never heard of. Individuals and groups are quite free to re-interpret and add to the existing doctrine as they see fit. The main point is that following the sovereign citizen doctrine also becomes a way of life.
But it’s not always holy or sacred. Like born-again Christian missionaries, the sovereign citizens feel duty-bound to spread the gospel by any means necessary. And sometimes it is necessary to charge money, lots of money. Some describe it as a pyramid scheme.
Believers caught up in the sovereign citizen doctrine buy into the movement, sometimes literally. Teachers of the law may charge up to $300 for training new initiates, as the Montana Freemen did during their 81-day standoff with the FBI in 1996. At least 800 disciples made their way to the besieged farm the Freemen occupied, leaving to spread the gospel throughout the land. Another money maker is the manufacture and sale of fake driver’s licenses, birth certificates, etc.
But there’s usually a financial interest in it for the new initiate as well, somewhere. Many owe taxes, fines, loans, credit card bills, child support, etc. They might be facing foreclosure or even jail, and have tried all other legal remedies and avenues. In short, they are often desperate people seeking a solution as well as answers (how to stop it and why did it happen?).
The sovereign citizen movement is based on a confusing legal/conspiracy theory that takes many forms, but ultimately promises to ‘liberate’ a person from government control and oppression through a process of legalistic maneuvers. Like the sources from which it draws its theory, the doctrine incorporates aspects of legal, political, economic, and religious movements. At the same time, it can be described as a legal-political social movement that functions like a religious cult.
As a doctrine it is a threat to Indigenous peoples in general, and the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty in particular, for several reasons.
First and foremost, the origins of this doctrine are found within a right-wing Christian fundamentalist movement, strongly influenced by patriarchal, racist, and anti-Semitic beliefs. Ultimately, the sovereign citizen movement in the US seeks to return that society to colonial-era America, where only white male property owners had rights. This is obviously contrary to the goals of a genuine anti-colonial Indigenous resistance movement.
Due to its emphasis on the concept of ‘sovereignty’, the sovereign citizen doctrine attracts some Natives and ensnares them in its confusing legal and conspiratorial theories. As Art Manuel correctly states, there is nothing in the sovereign citizen doctrine that supports or furthers real Indigenous sovereignty. The confusion that the use of the term ‘sovereign’ can cause, when it is used by two distinct and contradictory groups, as in this case, is obvious: Some people will confuse us with the retards.
Not only does the doctrine create confusion over what Indigenous sovereignty is, it also draws good hearted and well-intentioned Native people away from what might be more effective activities and instead has them committed to the most useless and counter-productive ones. Sovereign citizens spend countless hours researching the various legal codes and statutes they incorporate into their ‘case law’. Some spend countless more hours duplicating hundreds of CDs packed with legal documents, or ripping hundreds of DVD’s containing hours of footage of rambling lectures and workshops. They pass these out by the armloads at any gathering or event at which they think they can convert people. Hundreds of hours, hundreds of dollars, all to study, sort, file, duplicate, and distribute nothing more than junk. Garbage that only adds to the level of confusion, misinformation, and misunderstanding, already rampant in our communities.
Crazy and Confused, Con Job, or Cult? The Sovereign Citizen Movement is all of the above, and then some.