HELENA, Mont. - Debate over a Montana House resolution on the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians turned sour March 8, leading tribal legislators to demand apologies from two rural lawmakers who made disparaging remarks about reservation life.
The controversy stems from HR 11, which urges the federal government to formally recognize the landless tribe, now headquartered in Great Falls. The measure is sponsored by Great Falls Democrat Joe Tropila.
The tribe's saga began 109 years ago when a group of Chippewa-Cree pushed onto North Dakota's Turtle Mountain Reservation protested a federal government move that reduced their rolls and sold some of their land without their consent. Instead of validating the decree, Chief Thomas Little Shell and his followers left the reservation and dispersed in protest.
U.S. soldiers responded in 1896 by forcing about 600 members of the tribe into boxcars and dumping them off on the Montana-Canada border. In the years since, they've largely fended for themselves along Montana's northern tier, on Hill 57 in Great Falls and in other towns around the region.
The tribe, numbering about 3,700 members, has spent decades fighting for new federal recognition, which would make them eligible for education, housing and health services.
Last May, the Department of Interior issued a preliminary ruling granting recognition. But a six-month probation period has expired, a new president is in office and tribal members are unsure of their future. The non-binding HR 11 is designed to spur the process.
The Montana House passed the resolution 100-0 last month, but the proposal ran into snags while being debated in the Senate. Sen. Ric Holden, R-Glendive, pressed for more details about the tribe and whether it has a treaty with the federal government.
Holden, assuming the Little Shell will want their own reservation, demanded to know where they'd get the land.
"Is my ranch part of their reservation, or is downtown Great Falls going to have to give up some land for a court building?," he asked. "I don't know where these people live or where they're at, and I can understand their plight. But the whole idea of us recognizing another tribal government in Montana does not seem to be to be good public policy.
"We already have numerous problems in this state trying to rectify ourselves with the seven tribal governments we already have," Holden continued. ... "We don't know where these people are, who they are, or how much dollars they want from us to pay for health care or whatever. I don't think the people of Montana have broad-based merit for establishing another reservation in this state."
Holden also said he believes reservations are a breeding ground for social ills.
"I don't think the children that are born into that reservation system we create are truly going to be beneficiaries of what we are doing ... ," he said. "The fact is, I don't know anybody who has ever said, 'I can't wait to move back to the reservation.' Sad, but true."
Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, D-Great Falls, told Holden he's proud to have the Little Shells based in his district. The government made promises to the tribe, then backed out on its word, he said. While the long wait for formal recognition "might be rushing it in Glendive," the tribe deserves fair treatment, he said. He added that recognition would add jobs and income to the area's economy.
But Sen. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, said he's worried that giving federal legitimacy to the tribe will result in more problems.
"I'm concerned when you start putting people in bondage, and this is one of the things we're really looking at here - ghettos," he said. "And, unfortunately, the reservation is a ghetto, and those people are in bondage on that piece of land."
Butcher, a former school teacher who holds a master's degree in anthropology, added that other ethnic groups in America are landless, too, but they've learned to assimilate.
"What we're saying here is that it's our tax dollars (that will support it), rather than them going out and integrating into our system and our society," he said. "We are bringing these people into the same bondage that the people on the reservations, unfortunately, constantly, find themselves locked into."
Sen. Jack Wells, R-Bozeman, waded into the fray, saying he was concerned about Indian alcohol abuse and tribal members seeking welfare.
"I think my Irish culture should be recognized," he said. "But I don't want a handout for it, I just want to be recognized. I think we ought to honor the treaty. It's unfortunate it does require some welfare, but I guess we ought to recognize these folks."
"I'm just amazed at the temerity that we might have in this body to challenge the effort of a group of Montanans to negotiate with the federal government to better themselves," countered Sen. Jim Elliot, a Trout Creek Democrat, "to better themselves at not only no cost to Montana, but for a financial benefit for the state of Montana. I would propose to you that what some call welfare could be called opportunity."
The resolution eventually passed on a 43-3 margin, with Holden, Butcher and Sen. Ken Miller, R-Laurel, the first to vote against the resolution since it was introduced Jan. 25. But the discourse prompted a letter from the Legislature's six tribal lawmakers to Gov. Judy Martz and top House and Senate leaders seeking retractions and apologies.
The lawmakers said the resolution makes no reference to creating a new reservation. They also took umbrage with assertions that reservations are ghettos.
"We ask you, governor and fellow legislators, how would you react if someone pointed to your hometown and called it a ghetto?, the letter says. "What would you think if someone said your people lived in bondage? We are sure you would find it as offensive as we do. These statements fuel racial discrimination and propagate dissension among Montana's citizens. ... Far from being in bondage, our homes and our tribes are where we choose to live, not where we have to live."
The letter was signed by House members Bill Eggers, D-Crow Agency, Carol Juneau, D-Browning, Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer, Frank Smith, D-Poplar, Joey Jayne, D-Arlee, and Sen. Gerald Pease, D-Lodge Grass.
In reply, Butcher wrote that he'd "like to clear up any misunderstandings" about his statements.
"I have great respect for Native Americans," Butcher said, adding that he's the adoptive father of a full-blooded Indian daughter. "Some of my good friends over the years have been Chinese, Black, Hispanic and Native Americans. I have gained a great deal of knowledge from these friendships and hold them in esteem."
Butcher added that he's "gained extensive knowledge and understanding of Indigenous peoples and especially of the culture and heritage of Native Americans, of which they should be proud. From the perspective of an academic, I have concern with the perpetuation of the current reservation system that in fact is federal-financed bondage for 21st-century Indian people."
Butcher reiterated that he believes reservations are ghettos and provided a "textbook definition" of ghetto conditions.
"Unfortunately, the Native Americans suffer the same problems of high suicide, alcoholism, unemployment, teen pregnancy and the high percentage of fetal alcoholism and drugs just as the minorities face in Harlem, Watts, or other ghetto areas," he wrote.
In an interview, Butcher said his comments were meant as "constructive criticism," and weren't meant to be offensive.
"Unfortunately, this little political situation was set up by a government that didn't take responsibility for someone they conquered," he said. "You can't have a political subdivision within a political subdivision. That's where the reservation system doesn't work. ... The real issues at some time have to be addressed. We can't continue to talk around them. Hopefully, I can be part of a solution, not part of the problem. I don't have an ax to grind with anyone."
"If this was an apology, it missed the mark," Eggers responded. "His statement about his being more understanding of Indians than we are is condescending."
In a letter released March 12, Holden said he was only addressing concerns about the resolution, not Indians in general.
"I don't think that when you debate the merits of a bill or the public policy it tries to set up that it requires an apology," Holden added in an interview. "I'm speaking for what I think the people of the state wouldn't support. I'm not talking about anything other than the merits of the bill."
Gov. Martz, meanwhile, weighed in with a letter of her own.
"As public servants, we must carefully choose our words because they are usually expressed in a public forum where interpretations may vary greatly," Martz wrote. "It behooves all of us to choose words that build bridges and uplift those around us, rather than divide or discourage."
Martz said that after reading the correspondence from Butcher and Holden, "It is clear to me that they regret the unintended impact of their comments.
"Be assured that I am committed to working closely with each tribe and to learn about the concerns that we may address together," she said. "I am confident that we aspire to be considerate and direct in every effort, and I know that we may count on one another to respect and learn from one another."