Once home to Aryan Nations, northern Idaho makes progress

 
LA Times | Travel
 

For all its natural wonders, northern Idaho has a recent social history that scares some travelers. And the man in the middle of that history is Richard Butler. Butler, a Southern California aerospace engineer and avowed racist, was the founder of the group Aryan Nations. In the early 1970s, B...


By Christopher Reynolds // 07.25.09
 

For all its natural wonders, northern Idaho has a recent social history that scares some travelers. And the man in the middle of that history is Richard Butler.

Butler, a Southern California aerospace engineer and avowed racist, was the founder of the group Aryan Nations. In the early 1970s, Butler bought 20 acres near Hayden Lake, about eight miles north of Coeur d'Alene, and made the property into his group's headquarters and training ground.

For more than 30 years, Butler invited fellow racists to his property, staged Aryan World Congresses, enlisted supporters nationwide. One follower in the 1990s was Buford O. Furrow Jr., who injured five people in a 1999 shooting spree at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills and later killed a Chatsworth letter carrier. He is serving a life sentence.

Butler and his followers clashed often with other local residents, who formed a Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations to work against him. His downfall followed a 1998 incident in which two Aryan Nations guards beat and shot at two passersby in the Hayden Lake area, apparently because their car had backfired.

Working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the victims brought a lawsuit that in 2000 yielded a $6.3-million judgment against Butler, forcing the 2001 sale of his Aryan Nations meeting place.

Butler died in 2004 at age 86.

Now authorities say the Aryan Nations organization has splintered and dwindled, though some recruitment fliers turned up in April in a Coeur d'Alene neighborhood. The old Aryan Nations compound, acquired by North Idaho College Foundation, has been leveled and is now used for forestry and botany projects.

Meanwhile, Idaho-born Internet mogul Gregory C. Carr has bankrolled a Coeur d'Alene-based Human Rights Education Institute, which in 2006 opened a meeting and exhibition space on Mullan Avenue near the Museum of North Idaho.

"We're the direct offspring of the closing of the compound," said Rachel Dolezal, 31, the institute's director of education and curator.

Dolezal, a five-year Idaho resident whose family is multiracial, said the institute has plenty of work to do, noting that earlier this year, a handful of young men entered her workplace and made threats. But she also cited broader progress.

In February, programs commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month reached hundreds of Idaho adults and schoolchildren, Dolezal said. That same month, she added, the dozen African American students at North Idaho College organized the first black students association the school has ever had.

"Things are changing for the better," Dolezal said.