Listening to the House Fish, Wildlife and Park Committee hearing about House Bill 241 reminded me that some things don’t change, and that some things have changed.
During the 1999 legislative session at the State of the Indian Nations address by Fort Peck Executive Board Chairman Caleb Shield, I was asked by a representative of the Great Falls Tribune to write an opinion piece for the paper about the address.
Here is that opinion piece from 1999 with an up-to-date post script.
At last state Tribes have a say in the Capitol
Historic events can be tragic bolts from the blue, bruising the peace of mind and searing the moments in the world’s collective memory. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and John Lennon, the Challenger space shuttle accident or the death of Princess Diana still evoke the blistering passions of those times today.
Other times, historic events flow like molasses in a Hi-Line winter — unnoticed until miles and time have passed, and retro-view offers a clearer vision of what transpired. Something is happening here but what it is, ain’t exactly clear.
The Baby Boom generation, the Civil Rights movement, the VietNam War molassed their way into the minds of people and are now headlining staples of the collective memory.
The latter historic is happening in Montana now in the relationship between the Tribal Nations and the State of Montana legislative process. It seems that the inclusion of American Indians in the State’s economic and political sectors, has moved at the frozen-molasses pace.
In most of the existence of the territory and State of Montana, Tribal Nations have not been welcomed at the seats of state government. When they were, it was on the hot seat when State officials worked in cahoots with federal authorities to undermine — via the political process — the Tribal Nations’ rights and existence.
However, in the State of Montana there is hope that the often-chilly relationship between the seven Tribal Nations and the State is warming. It’s not a love-in, but understanding and respect as equals may be finally taking root in Helena.
The State of the Indian Nations address by Caleb Shields to the joint session of the Montana Legislature in the House Chambers on February 10, (1999) will perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, be seen as the turning point in the State-Tribal Nation relationship.
Senate President Bruce Crippen’s welcoming the Tribes in their Native tongues, George Heavy Runner’s plea for all to work together for the children, and the sacred pipe ceremony by Burton Pretty On showed that spirituality and politics are quite unlike the oil and water mix of religion and politics.
The genesis of the new willingness to understand and respect Tribal Nations was the 1997 Legislature.
There were several anti-Indian bills aimed directly at the heart of the Tribal Nations and Indian people that would have negatively impacted them. Then-Rep. Vicki Cocchiarella, D-Missoula, said the biannual political gathering was “the most mean-spirited, vicious session I’ve ever seen when it comes to Indian people.”
Tribes in the State, long stung by that vibe, mobilized and descended upon the State Capitol, in numbers heretofore unseen, to vent their pent-up frustrations with the legislative attacks. Because of their in-person involvement, the Tribes managed to hold serve at the 1997 session.
Some of the more vehemently anti-Tribal Nation bills, like two sponsored by then-Rep. Bill Boharski, R-Kalispell, would have ended affirmative action by amending the State Constitution, and the other would do the same thing by changing the statute, didn’t pass.
Rep. Rick Jore, R-Ronan, pulled his ever-present anti-Flathead Tribes bills out of his political mad hat for consideration.
One aimed to terminate the Flathead Indian Reservation bird hunting and fishing cooperative agreement between the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Flathead Nation. Jore also pushed for a non-binding joint resolution opposing the Confederated Salish ad Kootenai Tribes’ proposed management of the National Bison Range, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation. They, too, failed to pass legislative muster.
A rejected bill that the Tribal Nations felt revealed the cold heart of the 1997 Legislature was the “squaw” bill, sponsored by then-Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. It proposed to remove the offensive word from 64 locations in the State that have “squaw” as a part of their names.
Opponents to the bill called it a “politically correct, feel-good bill” about a word that “most Montanans don’t find offensive.”
However, Tribal women have long maintained the word is offensive to them — it has always been and always will be.
The issue to them was not about political correctness, it was about moral correctness and respect. Morality and respect were on vacation in 1997 when it came to the “squaw” bill. Anyone who has ever heard their mother and grandmothers called “squaw” knows there is no respect in the word because there is no way to deliver a disrespectful word as such. Hearing my mother called a “squaw” 35 years ago still stings me to the marrow.
At the closing of the 1997 session the Tribal Nations felt stung too. However, they realized the salve for their wounds fermented in the political process, and to ensure proper application they needed to be physically involved in the process.
“We’ll be back in ’99,” said Salish-Kootenai Tribal Council Chairman Mickey Pablo at that time. And they are.
The Jore bills are also back but they have been tabled in committee. Boharski is wreaking his ornery ways on the citizens of Kalispell as their mayor. However, Jore is picking up the slack by reviving Boharski’s anti-Indian bills of two years ago. They too, were trash-binned.
Also back this session is the “squaw” bill. If one bill can serve as a barometer to gauge the change in the political atmosphere in Helena, perhaps it’s this one. It passed this time because of Tribal involvement in the political process, and it appears that State lawmakers are beginning to see Indian people in a new light.
It sure felt that way at the State of the Indian Nations address. With the Pipe of Peace being passed among State and Tribal leaders, and with sacred smudge smoke wafting through the air it seemed the most people gathered understood that Indians are people with the same desires as the rest of Montanans.
They are citizens of their Tribal Nations, they are citizens of the State of Montana, and they are citizens of the United States. It is a unique existence that needs to be acknowledged, respected and dealt with honorably.
Post Script 2021
Sadly, Tribal Nation Tribal Council Chairman Mickey Pablo journeyed on to the Spirit World six months after the 1999 State of the Tribal Nations address. However, his “We’ll be back,” proclamation was prophetic.
In 1997 legislative session, there were two American Indian legislators in the Montana Legislature. There were two in the 1999 session; five in the 2001 session; seven in 2003; eight in 2005; 10 in 2007; nine in 2009; eight in 2011; eight in 2013; eight in 2015; nine in 2017; 11 in 2019; and, 12 in 2021.
The 12 American Indian legislators in the present Legislature account for 8 percent of the legislators. American Indians comprise 6.7 percent of the Montana population, according to 2018 census estimates.
The increased representation can, among other things, be attributed to the redrawing of voting districts, American Indian voting advocation, education, registration and showing up at the polls in steadily increasing numbers.
And not to be discounted on the rise of the political voice of American Indians in Montana were the megaphonic Democratic administrations of showman Gov. Brian Schweitzer and laid-back Gov. Steve Bullock. Both acknowledged and embraced Tribal sovereignty, and worked well with the Tribal Nations in advancement of many Tribal policy goals.
The symbols of those two administrations’ Tribal Nation whole hearted recognition are the Tribal Nation flags in the Governor’s meeting room, and Yellowstone bison on Indian Reservations that came to fruition under the Schweitzer Administration; and the Tribal Flag Plaza at the south entrance to the Capitol that flies the eight Tribal Nation flags equally with the State of Montana and United States Flag came to fruition under the Bullock Administration.
“This is a story of optimism and achievement. No Native American in Montana should feel like they have to walk through the back door of the Capitol of Montana,” Gov. Bullock said at the Tribal Flag Plaza dedication this past October. “This is a State House for all people — always for the First Nations. These flags will fly permanently… fly high every day so all can see Montana’s commitment when these flags fly together.”
“This is an historic day,” Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said at the dedication. “Eight Tribal Nation flags will fly for the first time with the American and Montana flags. Ten flags — all equal — will fly at the same height because these governments are equal to one another.”
Another symbol of that evolution of American Indian inclusion in the legislative process is Jonathon Windy Boy of the Rocky Boys Nation. Windy Boy has served as a member of either the Montana House and Senate since 2003.
In 2003, Rep. Windy Boy sponsored the successful House Bill 608 that laid the groundwork for establishment of the government-to-government relationship between the State of Montana and the Tribal Nations in Montana in the development of policy that directly impacts the latter. Among the mandates of the bill is the requirement that selective state employees receiving training and education about Tribal Nations.
All of these are road markers on the never-ending journey to equity and equality. The question now is whether or not the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature and Administration will enact speed bumps this legislative session that emulates the past president’s mean-spirited approach to governmental policies that further enriches the rich and promotes that advantage at the expense of the poor and voiceless.