Greg Leichner of Placitas, N.M., spent 20 years trying to take himself seriously as an artist - a pursuit that bought him so much mental anguish he finally cracked and traded it in for two new aspirations: Starting a newsletter called Citizens For A Poodle-Free Montana and running for president of the United States.


He makes only one campaign promise: To resign as soon as he's elected. As for Citizens For A Poodle-Free Montana, it's a group aligned against what he calls "the softening of the West." Its symbol is five cowboys lassoing a pink cartoon poodle. Although several poodle owners have cried discrimination, there are 10,000 people out there wearing "Poodle-Free" T-shirts. For a copy of the newsletter or other information, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Leichner at P.O. Box 1011, Placitas, NM 87043.











Leichner's group isn't alone in artistic awareness: Militia of Montana (MOM) member Kamala Webb recently interpreted the symbol on her sweatshirt - a picture of an armed man up in a tree that also adorns the militia's catalog. "I don't look at it as a sniper," she told the Billings Gazette. "I look at it as a hillbilly out in the woods. It's a picture of self-preservation. It's no worse than some of the pictures from the National Endowment of the Arts."


Webb also explained the movement's purpose: "It's the citizens arming themselves," she said, adding the guns will come in handy "when the government forces us to live like coyotes." She assured the Gazette the guns wouldn't be necessary before that.














Nevertheless, Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network would just as soon have a militia-free Montana. Toole, who described the militia as "creepie crawlies' in the network's newsletter, told a crowd of Montana State University students and militia members in Bozeman that the movement is dying but still dangerous.


"We're embarrassed by the reputation that you all have brought to the state," he told them. "People used to associate Montana with Glacier Park and the Yellowstone River. Now they say, "Oh, Montana - what the hell is going on out there?" ... People who are not white are afraid to come to this state."














Meanwhile, in an attempt to set the record straight on what kind of stuff the Washington State Militia is made of, leader John Pitner told a gathering of the faithful in Mount Vernon, "We're not a bunch of angry, white, middle-age citizens lurking around the bushes waiting to shoot someone." But the militia wasn't closing off its options to either lurk or shoot: The meeting room in which Pitner spoke had tables laden with tapes and books with titles like The Enemy Within: Who Is It? and Military Knife Fighting. Later, when Pitner told the crowd, "People are not going to want to give up their guns," the crowd responded with cheers, hoots, and cries of "Amen," reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.














Southern Arizona's Pinal County hasn't been too concerned about militias. But its desire to keep the county drug-free is so strong it recently sent an 18-member SWAT team to the home of Leo Mercado, who they suspected of growing marijuana. Armed to the teeth with machine guns, the officers shoved Mercado and his wife down on the floor while their terrified 5-year-old son looked on, The Navajo Times reports.


The team found neither the large marijuana field nor the armed and dangerous occupants they expected - Mercado is known as a peaceful man who is involved in school and community causes. But they did find tiny amounts of marijuana and the drug Ecstasy as well as 1,000 peyote cacti, which they confiscated. Although they eventually dropped charges of drug possession, they wouldn't return Mercado's plants.


So began Leo Mercado's protracted battle to win back his peyote. Arizona law allows Native Americans to possess the drug for spiritual reasons. Although Mercado is of Mexican extraction, he has spent a lot of time using peyote with the Huichol Indians in Mexico and considers himself a Native American. He began a fast, vowing to consume only small amounts of peyote and water until his plants were returned. The county attorney was inundated with letters of support for Mercado. A week later, Mercado got his plants back.














A heavily armed marijuana farmer named Bradley Throgmorton inadvertently caused the return of the "spiritual center of the universe" to its rightful owners, northern California's Karuk tribe.


The spiritual center, a four-acre clearing on the banks of the Klamath River, was used for an annual Karuk ceremony "to renew the world and ensure the salmon and acorns come back," tribal chairman Alvis Johnson told the Associated Press. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs sold the land to white people 40 years ago. Then its new owners built a fishing lodge and cabins in the clearing, leaving the Karuk to pray and hold ceremonies outside the lodge fence. The most recent owner was Throgmorton, who raised marijuana seedlings at the lodge and then transplanted them in the Klamath National Forest. He was arrested on drug and weapons charges, and the U.S. attorney seized the land. Although the Karuk couldn't afford to buy the land from the government, they recently prevailed upon the BIA to foot the bill for them.


"We're very excited," said Johnson. "We got part of our land back."


*Lisa Jones








Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumpersticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or HCNVIRO@aol.com