Economic challenges on Montana Indian reservations are as diverse as the tribes themselves.
But one message rang loud and clear at a listening session Wednesday on the University of Montana campus that included two U.S. senators and representatives from all eight tribal entities in the state: The federal government needs to pull more of its weight in addressing those challenges.
“If there is a true desire to improve life on reservations, Indian Country needs a New Deal, a deal that will truly develop needed infrastructure, incentives that will really encourage private investment,” Thomas “Stoney” Anketell of the Fort Peck Reservation told Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Maria Cantwell of Washington during a listening session at the UM law school.
Reading an address written by tribal chairman Floyd Azure, who for health reasons couldn’t make it from Poplar, Anketell suggested Congress make the same commitment to its Native people that it made to build the rest of America.
“We need incentives like the ones that helped Silicon Valley. We need grants like those that built railroads and colleges, not ones that helped us acquire rural FEMA trailers,” he said.
Water pacts, self-determination, exemptions from sequestration, coal development, water-borne diseases at Rocky Boy … Tester and Cantwell heard the gamut of items that Indian Country says it needs their help with.
“If we said what’s the biggest economic thing we can get done in the next 30 days, it would be to pass the Farm Bill,” said Cantwell, the Democratic chair of the 14-member Senate Indian Affairs Committee that includes Tester.
Tester invited Cantwell for a three-day visit to Montana that kicked off with the listening session. On Thursday, they’ll visit Nkwusm Salish Language School in Arlee at 9:30 a.m., after which they’ll tour a housing project in Pablo.
With Congress set to reconvene Monday, Tester said Cantwell could be doing “a hundred different things, including being back in Washington, D.C., and being briefed on Syria.”
Instead, she’s accepted invitations to listen to Indian issues from tribal representatives in Alaska and now Montana.
Tracy King, president of the Fort Belknap tribal council, said the U.S. spent $60 billion to $70 billion helping rebuild other countries after World War II, which equates to $180 billion or more today.
“If we could have about .001 percent of that in Indian Country, we’d be pretty well off,” King said.
Instead, federal programs already in place that address employment, housing and health services are wilting on the vine due to sequestration, many of the tribal leaders said.
“The U.S. Congress has already determined that some programs are exempt from sequestration. It is our proposition that programs serving the poorest of the poor should be exempt,” said Joe Durglo, tribal chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
CSKT is proud of inroads it’s made to stimulate economic development by establishing successful enterprises such as S & K Technologies and S & K Electronics, Durglo told the senators. But that doesn’t build more storage space for the Pablo water system, which is at capacity.
“Without the infusion of federal funds to provide for additional storage, the development of an industrial park is hampered,” he said.
Tribal chairmen from the Blackfeet and Crow nations, the Chippewa-Cree at Rocky Boy, and the Little Shell, as well as the acting president of the Northern Cheyenne, also voiced their concerns and suggestions to Tester and Cantwell.
All made cases for more federal funding, but several also urged the removal of impediments that the government, and specifically the Bureau of Indian Affairs, places on natural resource development. They urged Congress to support more local control over such issues.
The Crow Nation has been mining coal since 1974, and Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said it now gets half its revenue from coal development, even though “coal is a four-letter word in D.C.”
The tribe has a model reclamation program it has invited investors in Cantwell’s state of Washington to come see.
“We need your help to diversify” programs like a multibillion-dollar coal-to-liquid fuels plant, Old Coyote said. “A war on coal is a war on our families and our children.”
Anketell and Azure said the wish list at Fort Peck is for Congress to “support tribes to be sure economic development is responsible” as business in the nearby Bakken oil fields booms.
“We need to make sure that developing our natural resources today isn’t going to stop us from having the ability to further develop our reservation economy in ways that are sustainable for generations to come,” Anketell said.
Water issues are paramount to the Blackfeet, who don’t recognize the boundary between the reservation and Glacier National Park. The reservation’s rivers drain into the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson’s Bay.
A treaty with Canada, however, doesn’t recognize tribal water rights. Tribal chairman Willie Sharp told Cantwell and Tester the Blackfeet can use support from Congress to correct the problem.