Rights and Rites 

Legislators weigh bills affecting Native culture and economy

The Montana Legislature is considering a host of bills that would affect American Indians across the state.

One of the most high-profile proposals is House Bill 165, sponsored by Rep. Gail Gutsche, a Missoula Democrat. The bill would allow more human remains and burial objects to be returned to their rightful relatives by closing a major loophole in the state’s Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act.

HB 165 provides mechanisms for returning remains and burial objects taken from sites on private and state land prior to July 1, 1991. This includes publicly held collections, as well as artifacts and remains claimed by private parties. While the bill is largely aimed at enabling ancestral remains and objects to be returned to Native Americans, it encompasses all ethnic origins, Gutsche told the House Judiciary Committee during a recent hearing.

Carl Fourstar, a member of the Fort Peck Tribes, asked committee members how they would like it if a foreigner dug up their relatives. “I don’t think you descendants would like that,” he said, adding that when tribal ancestors were interred, “it was expected that’s the way things would stay.”

“It assures that human remains will rest in peace,” Salish and Kootenai official Germaine White said of the bill.

During the hearing it was revealed that the Montana Historical Society is trying to gut the measure by secretly offering amendments that would make the return of skeletal remains and related artifacts voluntary if they were found on private land. Under Gutsche’s proposal, returns would be mandatory if kinship or other cultural ties to the bones and belongings can be established.

“These are real people, real Montanans, real remains,” Gutsche told the panel. “They could be related to any of us.” HB 165, she added, will ensure that remains “won’t be treated like a science project.”

State officials turned against the bill once they realized one of their prime collections of Native artifacts, discovered in Park County in the 1960s, would be affected. The so-called Anzick Collection consists of more than 100 stone tools believed to be between 11,000 and 12,000 years old. Bone fragments “covered with red ocher, a pigment with ceremonial implications” were also unearthed at the site, according to a historical society handout.

Under HB 165, state agencies and museums in Montana would be required to conduct an inventory of human skeletal remains and related burial objects in their possession. Once the information is disbursed, parties that believe they have a claim to the material could file a formal request for repatriation. Such claims would trigger a hearing process, and a burial board would issue a decision, which could be appealed into state district court.

Committee members on Jan. 22 rejected the historical society’s amendments and approved the bill on a 17-3 vote. Upon being sent to the House floor, the bill was approved last Friday by a 95-4 vote and now passes to the Senate.

Sen. Ken Toole, (D-Helena) wants to require sellers of property within Indian reservations to provide written notice to buyers that the land “may be subject to the jurisdiction of a tribal government.” Toole contends the notice would help stem misunderstandings among future non-Indian residents.

At a hearing last week, Toole’s Senate Bill 270 was blasted by Helena attorney Jon Metropoulos, who represents non-Indian irrigators from the Flathead Reservation. Metropoulos argued that the bill is not needed and would, in fact, heighten confusion about the extent of tribal jurisdiction.

“You want to be sure people purchasing are aware that they’re getting into some issues,” Toole countered, adding that he’s willing to amend his proposal to make it more specific.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Eggers (D-Crow Agency) is sponsoring a measure that would extend the life of the State-Tribal Economic Development Commission. The panel, created by the 1999 Legislature, is designed to improve economic conditions on the state’s seven reservations. Part of the commission’s mandate is to conduct a statewide study of the contributions Montana tribes make to the state’s economy. Among other functions, the panel is also designed to find additional private and public funding for reservation development projects.

Under House Bill 21, the commission would be expanded by one member. It would also be allowed to roll over about $150,000 in funding that was allocated in 1999. Eggers initially planned to seek another $400,000 for the panel’s work, but he withdrew the request in light of state budget concerns. Eggers, a member of the Crow Tribe, is also sponsoring HB 107, which would require the state to earmark a portion of some federal excise tax revenue for fish and wildlife programs on Montana reservations. According to 1999 figures, the state receives about $10.8 million a year through the Pittman-Robertson Act and other assessments on the sale of selected sporting goods.

Under the bill, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would be required to spend at least 7 percent of the excise revenue it receives back from the federal government on tribal management programs. The legislation also creates a new tribal natural resources council to decide on projects and provide oversight.

Eggers reasons that tribal members pay a part of the tax when they purchase sporting gear, so they should also benefit when proceeds from the assessments are given back to states.

Other tribally related bills include proposals to hire more Indian teachers across the state, diversify funding for tribal colleges and allow them to access adult education dollars, allow voters to register to vote on Election Day, and use a portion of the state’s beef check-off revenue to help Indian ranchers. The Montana Legislative Council also wants to revise the state’s tribal cooperative agreements act, records show.

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