Buoyed by numerous successes in the 1999 session, American Indians are taking a proactive approach to the 2001 Legislature, which fires up in January.
In an effort to better acquaint incoming lawmakers with issues of concern, tribal leaders from across the state will host a first-ever Montana Leadership Summit at Helena’s Carroll College on Dec. 8-9. According to one of the event’s organizers, Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning), all 150 lawmakers and newly elected statewide office holders from the governor on down will be invited to attend.
Sponsored by the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Education Association and the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, the summit will serve as a preseason ice-breaker to help non-Indian legislators and policymakers understand what Montana tribes hope to see accomplished during the session, Juneau says.
A key focus will be financing for Indian-related programs in the state’s public school systems, promoting more culture sensitivity training for teachers and administrators, and ensuring that more Indian educators are hired, especially in schools on or near the state’s seven reservations.
In past legislative sessions, Montana tribes have often been on the defensive as proposals that affect their interests wind their way through the lawmaking process. However, a heightened presence during the 1999 session helped tribes earn passage of various economic development initiatives, get a bill approved that removes the name “squaw” from state-owned lands, and define the state’s constitutional promise of protecting and promoting tribal heritage, among other measures.
One tool being used to promote better understanding of Indian issues is the Tribal Nations Handbook, which was developed in 1995 by tribal leaders and the state’s Legislative Services Division. The 101-page document, which is free and available to the public, discusses tribal history, sovereignty issues, gaming, taxation, federal recognition, jurisdictional matters, and reservation programs.
“It’s kind of Indian 101,” says state legislative analyst Leanne Kurtz, who helps coordinate the work of the Law, Justice and Indian Affairs Interim Committee. Many tribal leaders would like to see the handbook updated and distributed more widely.
The idea for a tribal summit was advanced by George Heavy Runner, a former state legislator and Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member. The concept has already drawn the support of key lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty (D-Great Falls).
Juneau says she’d eventually like to see a similar event sponsored every year.