It’s a frustrating time to be fighting. There’s so much of it going on, for one thing, that the punching can sometimes seem too close to an ingrained pastime, a silly misdirection best abandoned if one hopes to pursue anything like what’s sold as a normal life.
But then on the other hand, not silly at all, considering that fighting, like dancing and fucking, takes two, and the other guy is so clearly fighting to win, not draw.
Would that it were a fair fight. What freedom fighters fight for almost always turns out to be nothing more than what they were promised when they signed on the dotted line. What the other guy offered up in the deal. What they’re owed, in point of contractual fact. That word is often turned against the freedom fighter, as if she were scratching and screaming for extras from daddy’s generous goodie bag, because the capital gains crowd and the working class anti-intellectuals who bet on the tougher horse this election cycle don’t care to make—or simply can’t make—the distinction between the actual meanings of actual words and the gross antonymities for which those actual words are being forced into service these days.
What’s so frustrating is that in the battle of words—and perhaps current leadership understands this better than anyone ever has—words mean everything; if you can make them mean nothing at all, a loyal following is assured.
The End of Major Conflict means PBS just reinstated its nightly body count.
Cutting down forest makes the forest healthy.
Weapons of mass destruction means two empty vans.
Tax cuts equal service cuts. No wait, that one’s right.
We’ve been told, after several generations of widespread familial transformation, that family values are a priority, and yet there is little support, aside from minor tax cuts, for the economic realities of real families, and only glacial acceptance of the alternative familial realities that have been flooding the market for decades. Who is fighting for families?
We’ve been told that no child will be left behind, but that mandate is felt on the ground, oddly, in news of school closings and teacher layoffs. Who’s fighting for an educated citizenry?
God knows what all we’ve been told about America’s native Indian nations, but the only badly documented part of that lie is just exactly how astronomically large a dollar amount to put on how much we owe.
The other guy says he’s giving you a bonus when he fires you, and in that climate, freedom fighters fight.
They have the words. They mean what they mean. And this Fourth of July, as a small pitch toward the cause, we’d like to offer them the ink.
Confronting educational doublespeak
The freedom to pursue the American Dream is nowhere more crystallized than in our public education system. U.S. public schools reflect the hopes of our migratory ancestors that their children might be given an equal opportunity to succeed in the land of liberty. In theory, our public schools represent the level playing field that is supposed to give each American child a fair shot at accomplishing his or her goals.
It is shocking to some, then, that public education has come under such vicious attack in recent years. On a national level, the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act has sparked debate by leaving an $11 billion shortfall for special education programs that will affect over six million American children with disabilities. At the same time, the act has led states such as Michigan, which once had the most rigorous testing standards in the country, to “dumb down” their requirements in order to avoid facing penalties. The result is that the Bush administration can factually claim that more Michigan children are passing achievement tests, even if the spike is a result of a lowered bar of expectations.
In Montana, state funding for public schools has been declining drastically for over a decade. In 1991, the state paid for 71 percent of public K-12 education. By 1995, that rate had dropped to approximately 67 percent. This year, it’s down to 61 percent, and by fiscal year 2005, projections indicate that the state will fund only 57 percent of K-12 public education costs. Make no mistake: our public schools are in jeopardy.
Fortunately, the largest union in Montana is on the case. Helena’s Eric Feaver is the president of the merged Montana Education Association and Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT). The group boasts 16,000 members in Montana, and not all of them teachers, either. The group acts as an umbrella organization for state bus drivers, secretaries, all of the state’s organized university faculty, as well as for state employees of agencies ranging from the Department of Corrections to Public Health and Human Services. Smaller agencies such as the historical society and Fish, Wildlife and Parks also contribute to MEA-MFT’s membership.
“As president of this organization, I’ve had the honor of representing it in nearly every public forum imaginable,” says Feaver.
Still, when informed of his Freedom Fighter status, Feaver replies modestly.
“Freedom fighter—that’s an interesting title. I hearken back to the days of the ’60s when people were sitting in cafés and stopping traffic on highways—those sounded like freedom fighters to me.”
While their actions may not be as dramatic as a sit-in, Feaver and MEA-MFT have railed against public education budget cuts for a decade, and the campaign has gotten more aggressive in the past two years to meet steeper threats.
This past legislative session, Feaver’s organization mounted its “Stand Up for Education” campaign, designed to raise public awareness of the Legislature’s public education funding mandate—a mandate that Feaver argues the Legislature failed to meet. You may have seen one of the campaign’s many statewide billboards on 3rd St. and Orange in Missoula. The image: a motherly-looking woman spray-painting graffiti on a school wall which reads, “School budget cuts stink,” followed by “Joey’s mom was here.” Another facet of the campaign was the launching of radio ads addressing Montana’s teacher shortage. Both versions of the radio ad featured this sentence: “Sadly, the 2003 Legislature cut $15 million from schools, just when schools need the money most.”
“I think the fact that [House Majority Leader] Roy Brown felt compelled to respond to our radio ads, and that other Republicans also encouraged him and certain media guys [such as The Daily Inter Lake’s Jim Mann] to respond is proof that we touched a pressure point,” says Feaver. “The Republican majority clearly doesn’t believe that they’ve done everything they should have, or else why bother? They could just ignore the ads and let it be. But they didn’t let it be. So I think that the Republican majority does have a problem talking about school funding, and it will have more of a problem in 2005. Our radio ads will be remembered, and we’ll trot out some more of those and do a lot of things that remind people that if the last legislative session did you badly, what do you expect from the next one if you vote for the same majority?” says Feaver.
MEA-MFT’s work isn’t limited to billboards and radio ads, however. In January of 2004, Feaver’s organization will go to trial, alongside the Columbia Falls School District, in a suit against the state.
“Its origin, essentially, is that inadequate state funding has compelled schools to cut programs, to lay off teachers and raise local property taxes,” Feaver says. He adds, “That always strikes people as odd—‘You know, my property taxes are going up, but you’re cutting programs. Explain that to me.’ It’s because the state is not funding its share of the bill.”
Feaver’s work hasn’t paid off in the Legislature yet. MEA-MFT introduced bills that passed the House in the last session, but were killed in the Republican-dominated Senate. But even if Feaver’s attempts haven’t amounted to legislation, his organization may well be winning the battle of public opinion. Feaver points to a MEA-MFT poll stating that a majority of Montanans don’t think public schools are adequately funded by the Legislature.
Because of this, Feaver is hopeful that he and MEA-MFT can turn the tide. To do so, he says, will require more political activism on the part of himself and his fellow union members.
“What we need are folks in political positions of power who like public schools, who like the University System, who appreciate the work of state employees. Right now, and for the last decade, we’ve had legislatures that don’t care about these things, so we’ve got to change that, and we’re dedicated to that principle.”
A one-woman peace-keeping force for families in crisis
The potent phrase, “I support family values,” makes for good political speech. It acts like a punctuation mark and can be placed strategically among the everyday words of nearly every politician walking the earth. Who isn’t for “family values”?
Sadly, when it comes to family values, the multitudinous mouths spouting the words are divided into a pair of very different camps. There is the photo-op-seeking, baby-kissing, budget-cutting camp. And then there are people like Susan Christofferson.
Christofferson is the executive director of The Nurturing Center in Kalispell, which this year celebrates 25 years of improving child care and strengthening families. A quarter-century ago, Christofferson arrived in town as a volunteer, working the phones trying to help families secure quality day care so they could go out and earn a paycheck. With her head cocked to hold the receiver, Christofferson shuffled with both hands through a desk covered in paperwork. She answered questions about what to look for in a day care center, made referrals and pointed the way to financial assistance.
But this wasn’t enough. The parents on the other end of the line needed more.
“I’d be on the phone with these people, trying to link them up with child care, and they were asking me all these questions about parenting,” remembers Christofferson. Her organization decided to begin offering parenting classes, and “It just bloomed from there.”
Today, The Nurturing Center sits in the quiet shade of Third Avenue West, just a few blocks from downtown Kalispell. A welcoming front porch greets moms, dads and kids in search of everything from cash assistance with child care to books about parenting to classes in anger management and child abuse prevention.
Every year, more than 300 different classes are offered through The Nurturing Center. Like everything the Center does, these learning experiences are designed to reinforce the seams that hold families together.
When those seams tear, Christofferson and her staff are there looking for ways to re-bind men, women and children. This isn’t easy work, as Christofferson explains: “There are all these [stresses] that erode what parents have to give their children.”
Sometimes the crisis of the moment is a lost job or some other financial hardship. Sometimes the trouble digs deeper, sending family members to the hospital and into the court system.
Wherever families wind up, Christofferson is there. The Nurturing Center provides space for supervised visitation between parents and children separated by court order. These visits can make for tense moments, when Christofferson’s uncanny ability to keep her composure comes in handy.
Supervised visitations bring together a volatile mix of players: fathers out on bail for abusing their spouses, mothers just out of drug rehab and children whose fragile minds can’t decide whether they should be happy or terrified to see an offending parent.
In the middle of this emotional storm sits Christofferson, who must take her experience supervising visitations into the courtroom. The 53-year-old mother of three—including a 16-year-old foster daughter—is routinely called to the stand. There, Christofferson is asked for her opinions about the mothers and fathers whose visits she has supervised.
Some of the visits are easy to recall. These are the ones that make Christofferson feel like a one-woman UN peace-keeping force. She’s been threatened, cussed at, and once had a toy gun pulled on her in a very unplayful way. Then there was the time police stormed The Nurturing Center and arrested a wanted parent.
When Christofferson says, “I’m putting myself at risk,” her sentiment applies to more than just police raids and threats from upset parents. She’s talking about her fear of taking the stand in court and making judgment calls about whether or not a person is fit to parent. She’s remembering the secret signals she gives children before supervised visitations. If a child gives her the sign—or if she notices any other clue that a parent is being manipulative or unkind—then Christofferson intervenes.
No matter what Christofferson does, she’s bound to disappoint somebody. She says The Nurturing Center tries to treat everyone with dignity—even parents accused of horrid abuse. Christofferson maintains a judicious demeanor—she manages interactions between the abused and the abuser with a compassionate yet straight face. And this sometimes upsets the victims in the room—the people who can’t see that Christofferson can’t play it any other way.
“They have real issues with me not being mad at [the abusers] too,” says Christofferson, who is given to saying, “we don’t fight child abuse, we strengthen families.”
Here’s another hazard of Christofferson’s workplace: The risk of coming across as permissive to those who might ask, “What do you mean you don’t fight child abuse?”
Remember, it’s all about the nurturing—about maintaining contact with families instead of alienating them. This allows The Nurturing Center to step in before families fall apart. One of the Center’s programs targets “the average parent who’s about to lose it and slap their kid,” says Christofferson. “They don’t have anybody to call.”
They do now, as The Nurturing Center’s House Calls program acts like a 911 for moms and dads who’ve reached their limit. The call comes in, and the Center’s Barry Flannigan goes out.
When asked about his boss, Flannigan says her work is “so stressful.” But Christofferson is able to roll with it. She moves seamlessly from her high-profile role as the Center’s spokesperson and administrator to carefree moments crawling around on the floor with toddlers.
Christofferson would no doubt like more of these moments, but there’s always a crisis at hand that she must tune into.
“She’s got the antenna up,” says Flannigan, who’s watched Christofferson stand her ground amid the constant crossfire brought to the Center by families in crisis. “That’s not something that intimidates her. You’re not going to bulldoze Susan.”
Just ask the countless Montana legislators who’ve found themselves face-to-face with Christofferson in the halls of the Statehouse.
“I haven’t missed a single legislative session yet,” says Christofferson, whose organization receives 60 percent of its funding from the Department of Public Health and Human Services (other funds come from private donors, the United Way, Flathead County and the USDA).
Of the many challenges Christofferson faces, this is among the most difficult: Convincing politicians to back up their rhetoric about family values with real dollars. “This is how you save tax dollars—by investing up front” in child care and support for families, says Christofferson. Like so many other activists, she shakes her head over so many lawmakers missing this key point: If you spend more today on innocent kids, you’ll spend less tomorrow on guilty adults locked up behind bars.
“That is a mysterious, nebulous issue for some politicians,” says Christofferson, adding, “You know, children cannot speak for themselves. All these other interest groups can speak for themselves, so it falls on us.”
Fighting for what’s theirs
Eloise Cobell is up-front about it. Yes, she says, she is a freedom fighter.
“There are many native people that have been taken advantage of, and no one has fought for them,” says Cobell. “Somebody has to make the government do the right thing.”
A member of the Blackfeet tribe and founder and current chair of the Blackfeet National Bank, Cobell is the lead plaintiff and catalyst behind Cobell v. Norton—the largest lawsuit ever filed by American Indians against the U.S. government. The class action suit is aimed at forcing the federal government to account for billions of dollars—around $137 billion, according to Cobell’s calculations—held in trust since the late 19th century and belonging to as many as 500,000 American Indians and their heirs. In the 1870s, when the U.S. government began breaking up existing Indian reservations, thousands of individual Indians were given strips of land as compensation. As trustee, the government held the title to tribal lands totaling about 47 million acres—mostly in the Dakotas, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. To manage the land and the payments, the government established a massive trust. The idea was that the government would collect and disburse to the Indians revenues generated by the extraction of natural resources on their land. But somewhere things went wrong, and the government lost track of who owns what land and has not consistently paid Indian families and tribal councils what they’re owed.
“The government knew that it could take advantage of people who didn’t have any information, who didn’t have a lot of knowledge or education or understanding of how trusts should be managed properly,” says Cobell.
Raised in Browning on the Blackfeet reservation, Cobell remembers the stories. Not just the ancient tales of her people, but the angry stories recounted by relatives who were never paid after being forced to lease out their lands.
“It was constant stories of the same thing,” she says. “It was, ‘I wish I could get my money,’ or ‘the Indian agency won’t pay me.’ Growing up with stories like that, it was kind of like a pattern that just sticks in your mind, and I wondered if there was anything I could do to help.”
More than two decades later, Cobell became the treasurer of the Blackfeet nation, and the stories kept coming. She then began to realize the confused and complicated state of the Indian trust monies.
“For instance, people were never provided with copies of leases,” she says. “So they couldn’t go to the Indian agency and say, ‘here’s my lease, I’m owed this amount of money.’”
In 1996, after fruitless meetings with the Bush, Sr. and Clinton administrations, Cobell filed suit against the government demanding an accounting of the trust funds and a reform of the system that has made a mess of the trust. Battling through two presidential administrations, the case has led to revelations of lies and corruption within the departments of Interior and Treasury. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who is hearing the case, has even gone so far as to hold former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, current Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton and other officials in contempt of court for their departments’ constant delays in producing documents, loss and destruction of documents and misrepresentations to the court.
Because of the suit’s complicated nature, Judge Lamberth has divided the case into two parts. In the first, which is centered on the reform of the system, Lamberth ruled in 1999 in favor of Cobell. Then in 2001, a three-judge appeal panel affirmed Cobell’s victory, and since then the court has taken control of the system to make sure it’s reformed. A second trial on how the system is to be reformed is expected to end next week, but many are less than hopeful about the outcome. Last week, Judge Lamberth criticized a reform plan by the Bush administration as being identical to failed plans by the Clinton administration. And even as Cobell’s attorneys prepare the second part of the case—to account for lost monies—Cobell has to battle the legislative and executive branches of government, she says.
“The [Bush] administration knows they have lost in court,” she says. “So they are looking for a political victory now. They are going to use people who don’t have any knowledge about this issue, such as the Congress, and try and use them to twist the [outcome of the] case.”
Cobell refers to the addition of language to the 2004 Interior Appropriations Bill that could undermine the success of Cobell’s suit. The bill allocates federal money to the tribes, and the language change would allow the Interior secretary to settle with individual Indians. Indians who settle would no longer have any claim to the trust.
“They’re going to go out and find the poorest Indians and try and settle for like $1,000,” says a worried Cobell. “How are they expecting individuals that have absolutely no information to understand what they are owed? [The government] is going to take advantage of people with no information to protect themselves.”
Since Cobell has become the point woman on the issue, she’s had a lot of blame heaped on her by her opponents. She jokes about it—“if it rains and they don’t want it to, they blame me”—but admits that it’s been difficult. Because the suit has gone on so long, it has bled into other projects she is working on—one example is an Indian mortgage program on her reservation that would be administered with the cooperation of the federal government and the Blackfeet National Bank.
“The government has held this whole process up,” she says. “Then they’ll tell the people trying to get a mortgage through that it’s Eloise Cobell’s fault.”
But Cobell says that while the government tries to run down her reputation, her own people aren’t buying it. Indian leaders have heard doublespeak from the government for two centuries now, and know enough not to let it “turn Indians against Indians,” she says.
Cobell has been at her crusading long enough to know that the case could end this year or “go on forever.” After a decade, she says she’s tired of having to constantly scrape together money for the suit, and tired of the Department of Interior stonewalling, but she won’t stop, she says. She won’t ever stop until her people get back just a little of what the U.S. government has taken from them.