Reinventing the weal

Helena conference explores routes to tribal prosperity


Educating non-Indians about American Indian cultural and sovereignty issues is a key part of successfully expanding reservation economies, say tribal leaders from around the state.

“We’re open for business, but we want to take control of our own affairs,” Fort Peck Tribal executive board member Rick Kirn told participants at a recent State-Tribal Relations Day in Helena.

But, Kirn added, substantial economic progress won’t be made on Montana’s reservations until outside investors and government officials have a better understanding of treaties, jurisdictional issues, and the cultural customs that make Indian people unique. In addition, business leaders must educate the tribes about their expectations if they choose to do business on reservations, which continue to be the poorest pockets of the state.

Kirn said that tribal governments also need to “shore up” their operations, minimize political hanky-panky with business ventures, and build trust and confidence among their own people as well as with outsiders. That’s the foundation upon which prosperity can be built.

Tribal leaders say that Gov. Judy Martz, whose office organized the day’s activities following her visits to each of the state’s seven reservations earlier this summer, is taking unprecedented steps to connect with tribes. Tribal officials invited to a private luncheon at the governor’s mansion say it’s the first time in their memory that any Montana chief executive has extended such hospitality.

“New administration, new rules of engagement,” noted Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Billings-based Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. “[Martz] is working hard at listening. She knows we’re going to agree to disagree.”

“It’s critical that we respect and build on these relationships,” Martz said in her keynote address, where she urged tribal leaders to be relentless in breaking down barriers, real or perceived. “The more we know about each other, the better we’ll be able to define our wants and needs. Let us know your feelings. Let us know what is going on inside you. Don’t let it smolder.”

Recently appointed state Indian Affairs Coordinator G. Bruce Meyers added that improved communication between Montana tribes and state government can do nothing but improve the climate needed to help Indians advance economically.

“There’s been a history of mistrust, of both sides pulling out, of miscommunication,” Meyers said, adding that the upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial will be an ideal venue for the state, tribes and private interests to pull together.

“They’re coming to see the cowboys and the Indians,” Meyers said, of the millions of first-time tourists predicted to descend on Montana in the next few years.

Among the messages from other speakers were that state leaders need to be more open to tribal concerns at all levels, from helping them improve reservation infrastructure, such as sewers and telecommunication lines, to connecting potential investors with both tribal and non-tribal entrepreneurs. What’s good for reservations is good for the entire state, they said, and the notion that tribal needs are separate from the needs of the general population must be discarded.

In the education arena, state and tribal leaders must ensure that teachers are taught about Montana tribes and their history, and that knowledge must be spread through the classroom, said former Office of Public Instruction Indian education specialist Bob Parsley. Parsley also said that more Indians should be appointed to state boards and commissions, including the Board of Regents, where Deborah Wetsit, an Indian representative, was recently replaced by former Montana House Speaker John Mercer, a Polson Republican who has sided against tribal interests in numerous political battles over the years. Tribes also need to work more closely with journalists to ensure that more “positive” stories about reservations are distributed throughout the state.

But Mort Dreamer, the Crow Tribe’s chief executive officer, said that at times, educating non-Indians about tribal issues can be maddening. He cited ongoing attempts by the Crow Tribe to establish a business relationship with a bank in Billings.

“They don’t know much beyond a late movie with John Wayne and the Indians,” said Dreamer, a former high-ranking official with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. “It’s been frustrating as hell.” “When we come to the table, I think it’s important to know who we are and where we came from,” added Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Matt said the state should allow tribes to have “meaningful gaming” in the state, which would help make them more self-sufficient.

“I think there is not a tribal representative in this room that would not like to get off the dole,” Matt told Martz during a panel discussion with several state department heads. “We were forced to keep a form of government without the means.”

Matt handed Martz a new proposal to end the ongoing gambling dispute on the Flathead Reservation, where an interim agreement between Salish and Kootenai leaders and the state expires next month. He urged Martz to quickly respond to avoid a divisive impasse. Citing several court cases the tribes have filed recently against the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation over reservation water rights, Matt said it’s probably impossible for the two entities not to clash. But minimizing conflict and working to understand each other’s viewpoints will undoubtedly help strengthen those relationships, he and other tribal leaders said.

David Gibson, the state’s new economic development czar, told participants that he sees many parallels as he listens to the concerns of tribal leaders and other state residents. The three main impediments to growth, he said, appear to be access to capital, inadequate education and training, and deficiencies in the infrastructure.

“They’re the same things we’ve got to do around the state,” Gibson said, adding that some tribal issues indeed “have a unique flavor” where solutions will need to be put “into a cultural context.” Rep. Norma Bixby, (D–Lame Deer) a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, said it’s unfair that Indians don’t have a greater say in state decisions, especially those involving education. But the doors to greater participation, she said, often seemed closed.

“We always have to push ourselves in, it seems,” Bixby said. “We have to come in and be part of the process.”


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