PABLO – Montana’s senators wrapped up a tour of the state by saying they are “here to listen.”
Montana senators Jon Tester and John Walsh visited Pablo on Saturday as the final stop of a statewide listening tour at Montana’s Native American reservations, as well as meeting business leaders, veterans groups and seniors in other towns across the state.
For both of the senators, the trip has special significance. It was Walsh’s first tour of the state as a senator, being introduced in his new role by the now senior senator Tester. The stops at the reservations were of particular importance to Tester, who was named the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee two weeks ago. The senators head back to Washington, D.C. on Monday for the start of the next Senate session.
Les Braswell, Senator Tester’s press secretary, said the senator’s priority as part of the committee is education, which is why several of his stops on the tour, including on Saturday, were at colleges.
Tester said the appointment to the Indian Affairs Committee means he has a much more direct line between hearing about the problems people on the reservations are experiencing, and being able to do something about it. Before, it had been Native American groups asking him to talk to someone else, or send someone a note. Tester said now when he gets a request for a hearing, “I’m the guy who can make it happen.”
After a meeting with the tribal council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Pablo, the senators went to Salish Kootenai College for a tour of the school and to hear from administrators the issues facing Native American education.
Salish Kootenai College, with nearly 1,000 students, offers 37 degree programs, including one-year certificates, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees.
In front of a group of around 30 administrators and students, Tester and Walsh heard from multiple faculty members who urged them to support increased access and funding for education related programs.
“My first committee hearing Wednesday morning is going to be addressing early childhood education,” Tester said.
One SKC official asked for Tester’s support of a new bill that would set aside a percentage of adult literacy and education spending to be reserved for Native people, saying no tribal colleges in the state currently had such funding. Tester said his priorities are to quickly handle the “low hanging fruit” bills that could see bipartisan support.
“If this is assigned to us, I think this is an easy bill to move out of committee and move forward,” he said.
In addition to requests, Tester was also thanked for his work supporting Native Americans and SKC, including helping to secure the school a $1.2 million climate education grant.
“When this place started out, to where you’ve come to today, is an incredible success story,” Tester said.
Walsh said the tour, his first time traveling around the state as a senator, helped him adjust to seeing Montana’s issues with a different perspective than how he looked at them as the lieutenant governor.
“It’s dealing with issues on a larger scale,” Walsh said. “Before it was what can we do at the state level, now it’s taking those concerns and presenting them on a national level.”
The senator agreed with Tester’s focus on education, particularly his support of creating education programs that could start at a young age. He said when he was a part of Governor Steve Bullock’s administration, they spent record amounts on early childhood education.
“It’s a situation where we invest early and see improvements over the years,” he said.
His concern extended to students who might earn a degree from a Montana college or university, but then go elsewhere to find a job. Walsh said part of Montana’s recent tuition freeze came about after seeing students leave school with more than $20,000 in debt, and not being able to earn enough in state to pay it back.
“We’re very lucky to live in a state with such natural resources. But we’re exporting our greatest natural resource, our graduates,” he said.
Jim Durglo, chairman of the board of directors at SKC, said it was a great honor to have both of the state’s senators take the time to listen to the issues affecting tribal colleges.
“The main thing we would like to see is funding parity with state institutions,” Durglo said. Tribal colleges, he said, often have a disparity in the amount of state and federal funds they receive as opposed to their state school counterparts, and are often unable to apply for federal programs that give out grant money.
Specifically, he cited grants from the McIntire-Stennis Act, which in part gives money to forestry school programs to fund research, but for which SKC is ineligible.
“We have the only four-year forestry program in Indian country, but we’re not able to take advantage of these things other schools have access to,” Durglo said.
He expressed optimism for Senators Tester and Walsh making time to visit, and listen, to the issues affecting not just SKC, but all tribal schools. As for results from those talks, he said, it will be wait and see.
“Who knows, we’ve been here before,” Durglo said.