It's been just over seven years since Sen. Jon Tester defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in a close 2006 general election. Roughly 2,600 votes separated the two, and Tester credited much of his victory to an outpouring of support from voters in Indian Country. He wasted little time in reciprocating. The first bill he co-sponsored in Congress sought federal recognition for Montana's Little Shell Tribe, and many of his staunchest political stances since have centered on Native American issues.
Now it appears Tester will wield an even stronger hand in crafting and pushing such policy. Last week, Tester inherited the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs during a congressional game of musical chairs prompted by Sen. Max Baucus' exit from office. The announcement came just a few weeks after the rollout of Tester's latest effort in Indian Country, a bill to establish a grant program supporting Native language education programs nationwide. The measure asks for $5 million in federal funding for 2015.
"Working together, we will expand economic opportunities, create safer communities, stronger health care systems, and responsibly manage the natural resources that are so abundant in Indian Country," Tester said in a statement regarding his new position. "And while we won't get it done in a day, I have full confidence in our ability to make big strides for all Native Americans."
Tester has repeatedly come out swinging on Native issues over the years, fighting to improve education, infrastructure and low-income housing opportunities. Just last year he pushed legislation to secure Indian Health Service funding one year in advance, a response to the nearly 5-percent sequester-inflicted reduction for mental health services like suicide prevention. He's also repeatedly held President Barack Obama's feet to the fire regarding federal funding commitments to tribes that have come under threat during tense budget negotiations in Washington, D.C. Much of this touches on the very problems Montana's tribal leaders raised last fall during a Missoula listening session hosted by Tester and Sen. Maria Cantwell.
For all that he's fought for, Tester still has plenty to prove. The Little Shell are still fighting for federal recognition. Funding and services for all reservations remain an annual battle. And tribal leaders are staunch opponents to one of Tester's biggest priorities, the Keystone XL pipeline. But the senator's chairmanship offers the best vantage point to revisit old issues that continue to languish, and tackle new challenges sure to rise.