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Carl Venne, Crow leader works to overcome difficulties

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BILLINGS, Mont. - Crow Tribal Chairman Carl Venne, sworn into office last November after a tough campaign against a dozen contenders, including his vice chairman, acknowledges that his nation faces immense challenges.

Widespread corruption and favoritism, exceedingly high poverty and unemployment rates, and political upheaval resulting, at least in part, from the tribe's last three top leaders being forced from office in the wake of federal indictments, have created institutional chaos on the Crow Indian Reservation.

Venne, 57, says he's devoted to turning his tribe's fortunes around by promoting honesty, integrity and pride. He's already pushing through a number of reforms and is working to boost the reservation's faltering economy on a variety of fronts.

Indian Country Today recently sat down with Venne to discuss his accomplishments, his challenges and his plans for the future.

ICT: Tell me a little about your background.

Venne (pronounced VAN): I was born in Helena (Mont.) and was raised by my grandmother at Crow Agency. My grandmother was a full-blooded Crow Indian. I needed an interpreter when I first got in school because I couldn't speak English. I only spoke Crow. I attended Hardin High School, but I went into the Army in 1966 and got my GED there. I am a Vietnam veteran and I was a police officer when I got back. I went to the police academy and from there I went to a criminal investigation school. Then I went to the University of Minnesota and graduated as a juvenile officer. I've worked for the tribe ever since.

ICT: What have the biggest challenges been in your new job and what have been the biggest surprises?

Venne: Probably one of the biggest surprises was how people perceive tribal government. In the past, people got into tribal government to enrich themselves. They never got into it to serve the people. They also ran up a deficit of between $880,000 and $1 million. There were really high salaries and I had to slash all of them and create a new salary schedule for tribal employees when I came into office. If you look at our budget today, it's a thin budget. But we will have a carryover into the next year.

ICT: What do you see as your most important accomplishments so far?

Venne: I've worked with the Crow Legislature to change the grazing program so more money comes into the tribe. The way things were, a lot of people were enriching themselves. The BIA let a lot of things go with our leases. They totally let the ball go. There are a lot of trust responsibilities that have just been let go. I'm trying to get the BIA and the tribe to work more closely. We need to work closely together in order to revive the economy of the reservation.

The Crow tribe has billions of tons of coal, yet the U.S. Census shows that Big Horn County is one of the poorest counties in the nation. We have the energy that runs this nation - the coal, the methane gas, the minerals - but why can't we do something and develop these resources? Part of it is that we have to operate under the 1938 Minerals and Mining Act (and other obsolete laws). The rates per acre under the act are too low. That needs to be changed.

But to develop these resources I need federal dollars. I need state dollars. I need a lot of technical assistance. We don't have the expertise to really own our own companies, which we should own. We as a tribe don't really have the money to put it all together by ourselves. We're still working to see if we can develop one or two (coal-fired electrical) generation plants on the reservation. But we need financing.

If you take a look around this state, every little town has a laundromat, a gas station, a little grocery story, a bank. We just don't have that. We need to start thinking how we can have all people develop small businesses. I think small business is a must. The more people we help get into small businesses, the better off the whole tribe is. I'm trying to do what I can to encourage that.

ICT: What personal attributes do you bring to the chairmanship?

Venne: I'm dedicated to serving my people, to make sure that everybody has a chance, that everybody is given equal opportunity. That's probably the biggest thing that I care about. We don't have enough work for everyone. I'm trying to address that.

One of the most important things to me is education. There's not enough funding in education. We have to find money so anyone that wants to can go to college. (For various reasons) schools on the reservation are not meeting the standards set by President Bush. Those are the sort of things I want to work on.

ICT: What are the main things you've learned so far in this job?

Venne: Probably patience. It takes a long time to learn all the things I need to know - power generation, the pipelines, the power lines going through our reservation. Our tribe has never voted on the (easements for the) power lines and pipelines, never gave the OK. The federal government went and did that on its own. I think we need to look into that, research that and be competent and be part of making those kinds of decisions. I'm learning every day.

ICT: You received unusually strong support in the 2003 Montana Legislature, especially from Senate President Bob Keenan (R-Bigfork), and you were asked to deliver the State of the Tribal Nations address during the session. How do you see the relationship between the state and the Crow tribe evolving?

Venne: I've had a lot of dialogue with President Keenan and the governor. I know when people are working from the heart trying to help. That's where I come from. There has been a lot of respect, and I really appreciate that. But there's this ideology with both the Republicans and the Democrats. They have to leave that aside, because they have to help the people.

Montana has the Coal Trust Fund (which comes from a severance tax and serves as an endowment and helps pay for an array of programs and services), and it has become a sacred cow. That fund was set up for a rainy day, and it was a rainy day at the Capitol last winter over the state's budget. (Both political parties) should figure out a way to use the fund in order to help more people. We all need to communicate better. But it's a two-way street, and the tribes and the state need to work together more. I know it can be done.

(Continued in Part Two)