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Will tribes get a seat at the table?

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A state legislator from the Crow Indian Reservation is proposing that a Montana Department of Indian Affairs be created to help Native Americans integrate into state government.

Rep. Bill Eggers (D-Crow Agency), broached the proposal during a Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council meeting last week in Billings. Eggers, among others, maintains the new agency is needed so native people can have a stronger voice. Eggers said he is already drafting a bill that would create the new agency. He wants tribal leaders across the state to add their input so the proposed legislation fits all their needs.

The current state Indian Affairs coordinator post, which now operates out of the governor’s office, doesn’t have enough clout, Eggers said. A full-scale department, he claimed, would allow tribes to get more involved in policymaking and programs in all areas of state government.

Montana tribes have been grappling with the future of the coordinator’s position for years. While many reservation leaders maintain the coordinator’s workload is too heavy and appointees to the post get stretched too thin, others like the close access to governors, especially to those who will support tribal initiatives.

The 1999 Legislature approved a bill to study whether the coordinator job, currently held by Louie Clayborn, should be replaced by an Indian Affairs commission. Eggers’ proposal would potentially expand tribal influence even further. At the very least, said Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Bill Old Chief, the coordinator’s job should be elevated to a cabinet level. There should also be money allocated to hire more staff and give the coordinator a raise, he said, adding that Indians in Montana can no longer sit on the sidelines and let state government make decisions without having their viewpoints aired.

“Anything from now on has to have the input from the tribes,” he said. “If we’re not there, we will be forgotten. Those days of non-Indians putting plans and policy together [for us] are over.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney, who now serves as Montana secretary of state, attended the meeting and said he’s committed to expanding the role of Indians in state government. But he did not say whether he supports the creation of a new Indian affairs department. “We have to have our Native Americans represented at the table daily,” Cooney said.

Fellow Democrats Joe Mazurek and Mark O’Keefe, who are competing with Cooney for their party’s gubernatorial nomination, have also been actively courting the Indian vote, which observers say could turn a race in a tight election.

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