Tribal governments in Montana lack access to the same policy research, analysis and legal advice that's supplied in-house to state legislators and federal policymakers. That means they don't have the same information that could help boost the government's ability to provide services to its citizens.

That's according to Heather Cahoon, an assistant professor in the Native American Studies Department at the University of Montana who grew up in St. Ignatius on the Flathead Indian Reservation and is a member of the Qlispé (Upper Kalispel) tribe.

“It’s a critical piece of making well-functioning governments,” Cahoon said. “Nobody tasked with making policy could ever have the expertise to understand this broad range of topics, and the Legislative Services staff is a crucial part of government.”

Lawmakers in the Montana Legislature, she said, have the Legislative Services Division, an independent, nonpartisan agency with dozens of staff members who provide policy and legal research and help with drafting bills, among other functions.

Without that kind of support, tribal governments don’t have access to data-backed research on revenue generation, economic development, internal governing structures, and all kinds of other things that can improve socioeconomic health on reservations, she said.

To fill that gap, Cahoon has proposed to create the American Indian Governance and Policy Institute, which would be a Native-led research entity and think tank that would provide tribal nations in Montana with “credible, in-depth research and analysis of tribal-level policies that impact the full range of social determinants of health in Indian Country.”

The proposal has been approved by the UM Faculty Senate but needs approval from the Montana Board of Regents. That might happen next March. The institute would not be taxpayer-funded, she said, and she's confident grant funding is available. She would utilize UM students and tribal members to research what has and hasn’t worked in other tribal communities to come up with recommendations or guidance for Montana’s 12 tribal nations.

Cahoon worked for three years as a state tribal policy analyst with the Montana Budget and Policy Center. Her job was to work with tribal governments to identify policy priorities.

She realized that tribes don’t have the equivalent of a state-funded Legislative Services Division.

“But we could provide that service though student-produced, faculty-guided work,” she explained. “We could offer tribes policy research and analysis of specific tribal-level policies. Students could do that.”

She’s partnered with the Indian Law Clinic and the Department of Public Administration and Policy, she said.

“So those students can use research and analysis by my students to draft related tribal codes and ordinances and deliver a whole package to governments,” she said. “We want to further efforts to create individual and community health and prosperity.”

All the state’s tribal governments have signed off on the initiative, she said.

“It’s a really daunting task to try to grow an economy in rural Montana for anybody, and tribal governments provide such a broad range of services to their members,” she said. “Coming up with revenue can be challenging.”

Cahoon is publishing her first book of poetry next September, called "Horsefly Dress." She has an Interdisciplinary Studies doctorate in history, anthropology and Native American Studies to go along with a master of fine arts degree in poetry.

The cover of Heather Cahoon's first book of poems, called Horsefly Dress. It's scheduled to be published Sept. 15, 2020 by the University of A…

“I’m very interested in how societies self-organize,” she said. “How does a society choose to prohibit and encourage different kinds of social and private behaviors? How does a person grow their economy? Are we using the right metrics? Is Gross Domestic Product all that matters, or should we be measuring other things?”

Jenna Meldrum, a sophomore at UM, is taking Cahoon’s Intro to Native American Studies course as part of the requirements for her education degree.

“She’s really introspective,” Meldrum said. “I’ve learned that I was taught Native American history incorrectly in my early schooling. She looks really well into how we can move forward.”

Rachel Torrey is in the same class.

“I think she’s really good,” Torrey said. “I like that she’s very approachable. She answers questions in ways that we can understand them.”

Torrey said she’s learning a lot about Native American culture and history that she didn’t learn in North Dakota growing up.

“(Native American history) was discussed, but there was never a specific unit dedicated to it,” she said. “I’d say it was just kind of brushed over. Definitely if we did learn about it, it wasn’t from the perspective of Native Americans. That was really lacking.”

The course at UM, she said, is opening her eyes.

“We cover a lot of information and a lot of stuff that we don’t necessarily get taught in grade school or other classes,” she said. “It’s a different perspective. It’s very necessary.”

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