This week’s State of the Indian Nations Address to a joint session of the Montana Legislature has every reason to be hopeful. For a century and a half, Montana’s American Indians have been ill-treated, living their lives in their ancestral homes not as honored members of our society but as second-class citizens. The election of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, however, has changed that status. Now, for the first time in the history of our state, the flags of the Indian Nations fly in the governor’s reception room—and the hopes and dreams of Indians across the state are rising with his new approach to our First People.
In his State of the State speech, Schweitzer promised that Montana’s Indians would be welcomed “through the front door” of the Capitol, and so far he has more than kept that promise. As he said during a meeting with Indian legislators recently: “I am the 23rd governor of Montana and I have already appointed more Indians to my Cabinet and agencies than all 22 previous governors combined—and I’m not done yet.”
Schweitzer’s approach to Montana’s Indian population makes good sense. Currently Indians compose a full 7 percent of Montana’s total population. No one who seeks to lead the state should write off such a significant segment of the citizenry—but that has been the case in the past.
Gov. Judy Martz, following the lead of governors before her, refused to allow Indian unemployment figures in the state’s statistical reporting database because, as she said when questioned by Indian leaders, “it would make the state look bad.”
Regardless of how it would make the state look, however, the reality is that Montana’s Indian unemployment runs as high as 70 percent, especially during the winter. If any non-Indian community were experiencing such high unemployment, who can doubt that the state would launch immediate and extensive efforts to bring relief to the affected population? But because Indian Country is generally considered a “federal problem,” state officials have not only turned a blind eye to the issue, they have tried to sweep it under the rug completely.
Such a shortsighted approach has reaped its own dismal results, which can be read in the statistics on the disproportionate percentage of our Indian population in prison, the problems with Indian drug and alcohol abuse, school dropout rates and domestic strife. But put yourself in the place of Montana’s Indian people and it’s not hard to imagine that you, too, might find it easier to seek ways to escape from a society that ignores you at best and intentionally persecutes you at worst.
But now, with Schweitzer’s “New Day in Montana,” there is hope where there was only dismal despair—and not just in the symbolism of flags or speeches, but in the down-to-earth matters of education, law and money.
Just this week, for instance, Schweitzer announced that his administration would not join a federal lawsuit against the Northern Cheyenne Tribe over drilling for coalbed methane under reservation lands. His predecessor Martz, after losing her attempt to convince the state’s Board of Land Commissioners to do so, attempted to force Attorney General Mike McGrath to file the lawsuit and, failing that, announced that her office would independently join the suit on behalf of the state (see “True Colors,” Oct. 28, 2004).
The issue here is seminal: whether our sovereign Indian Nations have control over their assets of land, water and mineral resources. In this case, an out-of-state energy company, Fidelity Exploration and Development, leased the rights to drill on state land and contends it has the right to drill under the Tongue River. But the Northern Cheyenne hold the river, the eastern boundary of their reservation, to be sacred, and argue that no state lease is applicable to tribal lands. To his credit, Gov. Schweitzer agrees and has acted in good faith to uphold tribal sovereignty.
Part of the problem for Montana’s Indian people is that they are so poorly understood by the state’s non-Indian population. This is no surprise since the state’s education curricula basically ignores Indian history, culture, religion and political organization—despite, as a recent Supreme Court decision affirmed, being mandated by Montana’s Constitution.
In this regard, Schweitzer has put his money where his mouth is once again, earmarking $2 million for tribes to compile their histories and work with the Office of Public Instruction to develop Indian Education for All curricula for Montana’s schools and universities. While everyone acknowledges that the task will require more funding, no one disputes that Schweitzer has made a first step in the right direction.
Throughout his administration, Schweitzer is taking similar first steps for Montana’s Indian people, from funding non-Indian students at tribal colleges to increasing the percentage of Indians among the state’s employees. Bills that have failed in the past, like one to equitably distribute the federal sporting goods excise tax to tribal fish and game departments, are looking at a far greater likelihood of success this time around with the strong support coming from the governor’s office.
None of this means the problems facing Montana’s Indians are going to disappear overnight. Far from it. Many of the problems stem from deep-rooted racism, fear and ignorance endemic in the non-Indian population. Problems that have festered for a century and a half will take time, effort and serious investment to overcome. But as the saying goes: “A trail of a thousand miles begins with the first step”—and Schweitzer is definitely taking those first steps.
No leader can ignore 7 percent of his constituency and hope to govern successfully. Schweitzer knows this and has said he hopes to make his work with the Indian Nations his greatest legacy. Given this commitment, the State of the Indian Nations is brighter than it’s been in a very long time.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.