Once again bigotry has raised its ugly head in the Flathead with the filing of a last-minute lawsuit by a couple of right-wing white guys against the transfer of the Kerr Dam to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. And given their extremely specious concerns, reasonable Montanans should reject and condemn this embarrassing spectacle for the baseless fear-mongering that it is.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Washington, D.C., federal court by two Republicans, former Kalispell legislator Verdell Jackson and Bigfork state Sen. Bob Keenan, is intended to stop the high-level transfer, which was begun by contract in 1985 and will make the Salish-Kootenai the first American Indian tribe in the nation to acquire a major hydroelectric facility.

The reasons for filing the suit fully define “frivolous lawsuits” and range from the fear that Turkey will infiltrate the Salish-Kootenai to spread Islam and then make off with the “uranium deposits” around Flathead Lake to taking control over all other dams and water resources on and off the reservation.

It’s a mystery how Keenan could somehow forget that the legislature in which he served only months ago passed the Salish-Kootenai Water Compact that clearly lays out the preservation of existing water rights for on- and off- reservation users. As for worrying about Turkish Islam terrorists taking over the Salish-Kootenai, well, I’d say after a century of having non-Indians try to take over everything the tribe was supposed to get in the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, Turks are the least of tribal or non-tribal citizens’ worries.

But what’s astounding is the use of such fear-mongering to attempt to once again deny any semblance of self-determination to the Salish-Kootenai. Truth is, it’s not the first time Montanans have seen such tactics.

Way back in 1993, the Salish-Kootenai came to the Montana Legislature with a bill to allow the tribes to enforce the law on their own tribal members for misdemeanor offenses. The measure, known as "retrocession," would have ended an agreement made by the tribes decades before in which they ceded law enforcement of tribal members to Lake County. Because the tribes did not have functioning law enforcement, with tribal judges, officers, detention facilities, etc., at that time, they believed assurances that when they did have those abilities they would simply be able to take back authority over tribal members.

But like so much in the shameful history of how Indians have been treated by this nation, when it came time for the Salish-Kootenai to run their own law enforcement, they were told it would take legislation to do so, a considerable hurdle in the face of legislators who predicted chaos and lawlessness would ensue.

Long story short, the tribes fought a very tough battle, but to no avail. The bill was killed and “indefinitely postponed” in the House. But in a brilliant understanding of just how the modern world works, then-Tribal Chairman Mickey Pablo, a truly brilliant leader, threatened to pull tribal funds out of the local banks. That would have meant the loss of tens of millions of dollars a year to those banks — and suddenly the bankers weren’t so hot to deny the Indians jurisdiction over their tribal members.

The bankers started pulling strings on legislative leaders and the bill was revived and passed through the House and Senate on the last day of the session in a series of supermajority votes, an astounding turnaround that brought justice and victory to the Salish-Kootenai after so many years of broken promises. In the 22 years since, the tribal money remains in the banks and the fears of tribal law enforcement proved to be as baseless as the current supposed threat of Turkish terrorism in the Flathead.

Fact is, from starting one of the first tribal colleges to saving the remnant bison population, the Salish-Kootenai have always been a visionary people. Were it not for Michel Pablo, one of the early tribal leaders, it’s very possible there would be no bison in Yellowstone National Park. It was through his tremendous efforts more than a century ago that the few remaining bison were saved from extinction and repopulated in Yellowstone and Canada.

Keenan and Jackson ought to call up their New York lawyer and pull this foolish, fear-mongering lawsuit. They, and all Montanans, should honor the Salish-Kootenai for the tremendous accomplishment of becoming the first tribe in the nation to own a major hydroelectric dam and continuing their long record of tribal self-determination.

George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. Contact him at oped@missoulian.com.

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