Newly elected Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Fred Matt says one of his top goals is to provide continued stability for the Flathead Indian Reservation. Part of that plan includes improving relations between Indians and non-Indians, he says. “I think the way we improve our relationship is through education,” he explains. “You have to meet at eye level with honesty. I think that’s where you have to start. We both have a vested interest here with our people.”
Matt, 49, was unanimously selected by fellow tribal leaders last week to serve a two-year term as council chairman. He replaces former Chairman Mickey Pablo, who died unexpectedly in August. Matt is in the middle of his third four-year term as a Tribal Council representative from St. Ignatius. He has served two full terms as vice chairman, both under Pablo.
Matt, a soft-spoken pragmatist, takes on a full slate of pressing issues as the tribes’ new leader. Among them are renegotiating a state-tribal gaming compact, developing a plan to improve U.S. Highway 93, negotiating a water-rights agreement, and keeping an eye on the federal Flathead Irrigation and Power Project, which non-Indian irrigators would like to run. Also on the radar screen, Matt says, are an ongoing program to buy back private land within the reservation and development of a tribal management agreement at the National Bison Range, which Pablo held as a longtime goal. “We could do that and do that very successfully,” he says of the Bison Range proposal, which was buried in federal politics nearly five years ago. Serving with Matt is new Vice Chairwoman Jami Hamel of Arlee, a member of the council since 1998.
Prior to being elected to his current term in office, Matt worked for the tribal Wildlands Recreation Program for more than 15 years. A lifelong resident of St. Ignatius, Matt attended the Catholic Ursuline school in Mission before graduating to St. Ignatius High School. At 16 he quit school to pull green chain in a local sawmill and to work in the woods as a sawyer. Matt later earned a general education degree and has since completed a bevy of college courses, mostly in resource management. Among other jobs, he has served as a firefighter and a crew leader for the Young Adult Conservation Corps.
Over the years, Matt has served on the Flathead Reservation State-Tribal Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council, the St. Ignatius School Board, and the Inter-Tribal Timber Council, where he served a stint as chairman. He has long been known as a strong supporter of education, especially Salish Kootenai College.
“I think we have a great organization, and that’s because we have a lot of good people working for us,” he says of the Salish and Kootenai tribal government. “I see that it’s important to carry that stability forward.”