PABLO – A rather routine meeting of the Montana Land Board on Wednesday morning made history nonetheless.
For the first time ever, the board’s commissioners – Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Monica Lindeen – conducted their business on an Indian reservation.
The Flathead Reservation became the first of Montana’s seven reservations to host a Land Board meeting.
Appropriately, Fox noted, the half a dozen timber sales the board approved that will benefit Montana schools, universities and public buildings are all located in the traditional lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The board usually meets once a month in Room 303 of the State Capitol, and “To meet in another house where sovereignty occurs is something we’ll all remember,” Bullock said.
No sooner had the board adjourned at CSKT Headquarters on the Flathead Reservation, than approximately 80 employees of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation – most of them foresters in western Montana – began two days of cultural heritage training in the same CSKT Tribal Council chambers.
“Welcome to our homeland,” CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley told the overlapping crowd at the two events. “This is historic.”
About 300 state employees receive cultural heritage training in Helena each year from Jason Smith, director of Indian Affairs for the state, but to have that training occur on a reservation, with all the local resources available, “is huge in my world,” Smith – an enrolled member of the CSKT – said.
Just as important as the training itself, said DNRC forest management planner Jessica Brown, are the connections that will be made between DNRC employees and tribal officials.
The department that oversees 5.2 million acres of state trust land, manages the state’s waters and forests, and permits oil and gas wells, always faces the possibility that its work will take it to culturally important sites to Native Americans – both on and off reservations.
When scoping notices about DNRC projects are sent out, Montana’s Indian tribes are all included.
But when DNRC employees and tribal officials know one another, it works better, Brown said.
“It’s not just, ‘Here’s the obligatory phone call,’ ” she said. “There are real relationships. When they call Kevin in the (CSKT) preservation department, they’ll know each other now.”
Kevin is Kevin Askan, contract manager of the Tribal Historic Preservation Department.
He will be leading a Thursday session with the foresters, as will Rosemary Caye, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act coordinator and a member of the Kootenai Culture Committee, and Katie McDonald, staff member of the Tribal Historic Preservation Department.
The DNRC folks also heard from Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee head Tony Incashola on Wednesday.
“You’re not here to be turned into cultural resource experts,” Bullock told the state employees. “You’ve been gathered to learn, listen and better understand tribal historic resources.”
Juneau, who said she asked if DNRC was doing enough to communicate effectively with tribal communities, encouraged those at the training to “Do everything you can that, if you’re asked if the relationship between DNRC and tribes is strong, the answer is yes.”
“I did get that question from Ms. Juneau,” DNRC director John Tubbs said of the superintendent of public instruction, an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes who grew up in Browning. “I did feel a little challenged.”
But building those relationships is important, Tubbs said.
“Every square inch of Montana is Native land,” he said, and Lewis and Clark’s arrival here in 1803 “is not that long ago in the history of this landscape.”
The goal is to offer similar training down the line to DNRC employees who work near Montana’s other six reservations, on those reservations, Tubbs said.
“It’s not often you’ll get these five to address you at the start of a training session,” Tubbs said of Bullock, Fox, Juneau, Lindeen and McCulloch.
Fox said he brought 40 of his top managers at the Department of Justice to the Flathead Reservation for a similar day of training a couple of years ago.
“It was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” the attorney general said. “We learned a lot about the Allotment Act, and the impact decisions that are made have on Native peoples.”
His department has done things “big and small” to recognize the importance of Montana’s Indian tribes, Fox said, and the training session was only one of them.
“For the first time, if you walk into the Department of Justice in Helena, you’ll not only see an American flag and a state flag, you’ll see the flags of all of Montana’s tribal nations, because we represent everyone in Montana,” Fox said. “And we worked closely with DNRC to get the (CSKT) water compact passed, because it was the right thing to do for the right reasons.”
Smith said he appreciates agencies that have stepped up their focus on training employees in Native American culture and traditions.
“It’s people like the governor and attorney general who set the direction,” Smith said, “but it’s you people on the ground who make it happen.”