Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., heard some hard truths from Indian Country last week. During a listening session in Missoula, leaders from all eight Montana tribes underscored the importance of encouraging economic growth on tribal lands and lamented how the United States government has failed to hold up its end.
For the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the trouble lies with a lack of federal support for the development of an industrial park in Pablo. For the Chippewa Cree, concerns were as basic as the need for clean drinking water on the Rocky Boy Reservation, where waterborne diseases remain a constant health risk. Even news of high morale on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation due to last year's reintroduction of Yellowstone bison quickly gave way to a much graver tone as officials suggested that federal programs serving Indian Country should not be subject to sequestration.
"Unfortunately, the federal government's commitment to economic development in Indian Country has been merely symbolic at best," said Fort Peck's Stoney Anketell, reading a statement from chairman Floyd Azure. "To the contrary, this nation's economy was built at the expense of America's indigenous people ... Nationally, Indians continue to rank at the bottom of every social and economic indicator: unemployment, income, infant mortality, life expectancy, chemical dependency, suicide."
The talk of water-, land- and assistance-based issues may not have come as any great shock to Cantwell, who currently chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. But one voice spoke for a group in Indian Country to which many of those concerns still don't apply. Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe, opened with one of the hardest truths of all: His people still aren't federally recognized. In other words, Little Shell's 5,200-and-counting members don't enjoy the same access to federal grants and contracts that other tribes do.
"We have a lot of smart, independent businessmen and businesswomen that have to go after business just like everybody else in the United States because we don't have these federal funds coming in," Gray said.
Tester later emphasized that he continues to fight for federal recognition for the Little Shell. "It's the first bill I introduced when I got to the Senate," he said. He and Sen. Max Baucus are currently the only sponsors of the Senate's Little Shell bill. Rep. Steve Daines stands alone as the sole sponsor of the House version.
Gray made a concise yet compelling case among a host of similarly moving cases. But he went for the hard sell, concluding his testimony with a glance toward Cantwell. "We're always looking for a co-sponsor."