Strengthening sovereignty 

Flathead tribes gain greater control of bison, irrigation

All across the country, for centuries, Indian tribes have struggled to regain their former sovereignty. With Congress’ passage of the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and the 1994 Tribal Self-Governance Act, the U.S. government provided the tribes with a legal standing for such struggles, and now the tribes on Montana’s Flathead Reservation—the Confederated Salish and Kootenai—are making headway. In the past week, the tribes have moved forward in gaining greater degrees of control over both their local irrigation system and the National Bison Range, located on 18,000 acres of Flathead reservation land in Moiese.

On the irrigation control issue, public scoping meetings were held Mon. and Wed., June 28 and 30, in Arlee and Ronan, respectively, though turnout was minimal. The meetings were held to give the public an opportunity to comment on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s plan to turn control of water and irrigation systems on the Flathead Reservation over to the tribes, as well as to non-Indian, or “fee-land” water users. The reservation’s irrigation system has been under U.S. government control since 1904, and in 1908 it was decided that control would be given to local landowners once those who used the irrigation system had paid back the cost of building it through the sale of water power from the local irrigation districts. That payback was finally completed in January of 2004. The question of who would adopt ultimate control of maintaining and operating the irrigation system could have been a divisive one, as amendments to the 1904 law may have been interpreted to deliver control to either Indian or non-Indian land owners. But such a showdown was averted when the tribes and non-Indian water users, the latter represented by a newly formed entity known as the Flathead Joint Board of Control (FJBC), agreed to work together and share management duties. The two groups will henceforth work as one under the umbrella Cooperative Management Entity (CME), which the U.S. Department of the Interior hopes will be able to function cohesively, so that the department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will play only a hands-off oversight role.

“Our goal is to cede to local control,” says Department of the Interior lawyer Dan Hirschman.

However, while local tribes and landowners may operate and control the irrigation system, an important distinction is that the Department of the Interior will retain outright ownership, a point which could make the transfer of power analogous to Iraq’s new “limited sovereignty.”

Therefore, if FJBC and the tribes reach an impasse where they simply can’t agree, Hirschman says, “ultimately the Secretary of the Interior has final say.”

But even if the transfer doesn’t exactly constitute complete tribal control on the reservation, says Clayton Matt, head of the Natural Resources Department for the Salish and Kootenai, it is nonetheless a step in the right direction.

“We’ve been striving to define sovereignty for generations,” Matt says. “And this is another step toward strengthening our definition of tribal sovereignty here in the Flathead.”

Yet another step in this direction was announced on Tuesday of this week, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribes released the result of negotiations on the National Bison Range’s Annual Funding Agreement. Under the new agreement, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes will be included in management of the range—which is entirely on reservation land—for the first time ever, a position tribal leaders have been pursuing for more than 10 years.

The agreement comes after over a year of closed-door negotiations which had many in the public scratching their heads as to what, exactly, was being negotiated.

Under the new agreement, tribal employees will work alongside federal Fish and Wildlife Service employees on everything from biological research to fire management and range maintenance to providing visitors with information about the approximately 500 wild bison on the range. The range is also home to antelope, elk, sheep and mountain goats. Also included in the agreement are other lands on the Flathead Reservation within the bison range complex, including the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, the Pablo National Wildlife Refuge and other waterfowl areas.

“It’s a huge step toward future management,” Matt says. “Now we must define what the future will be in a fair and equitable way. The time for speculation is over. We look forward to implementing this.”

The new shared management may go into effect as early as January of 2005, according to laws dictating that both the public and Congress be given 90-day comment periods. The public can view and comment on the new range agreement online at http://mountain-prairie.fws.govb/cskt-fws-negotiation, and comments may be submitted to

As with the irrigation system, a government agency—this time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—still assumes ultimate federal responsibility for the range, but the tribes will enjoy a greater degree of control than they have had since the range was first established by Congress at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.

The tribes have previously taken over management duties from the federal government for Tribal Health and Human Services, the tribal wildlife management program and Mission Valley Power. Now the Confederated Salish and Kootenai can add two more functions to their list, making the rhetoric of the Tribal Self-Governance Act that much closer to reality.

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