HELENA, Mont. - Expanding beyond the welfare-reform issues it focused on in the past, the Cherish Our Indian Children (COIC) organization is making precedent-setting impacts at the 2003 Montana Legislature.
While the nonprofit tribal group first got involved in state legislative issues in the 2001 session, this session they've broadened their reach into a wide area of policy arenas, from economic development and taxation issues to health care, corrections and education.
"For tribes, there really need to be an emphasis on policy for change to happen," observes Toni Plummer-Alvernaz, one of three COIC employees working at the state capitol this winter.
"There's so much work here to be done on a daily basis," adds Laurie Sun Child, a member of Montana's Chippewa-Cree Tribe. "That's why it's important for tribes to have a stronger presence."
COIC was initially established in 1993 to address the high rate of fetal-alcohol problems among American Indians. The scope of the group later expanded when the W. K. Kellogg Foundation awarded it a three-year grant to get involved in national welfare-reform issues by interjecting a tribal perspective into the debate. One of the goals of the group was to serve as a conduit between tribal governments and Congress as the policy changes evolved.
"What we found is that tribes never had a voice in any of that in the past," says Plummer-Alvernaz, who serves as executive director of the group.
A primary focus in the mid-1990s was on the "devolution" of public welfare systems, where authority and responsibility for programs and services were transferred from the federal government to states and individual tribes. Making sure tribes were not adversely impacted by the changes occupied much of the group's efforts.
In 2001, COIC leaders, backed up by tribal governments across Montana and Wyoming, formed an independent technical group to mainly work on social services issues at the state level. This time around Sun Child, Plummer-Alvernaz and Bruce Plummer, who normally base their operations on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, are delving into virtually every legislative initiative that involves tribes and tribal members.
While much of their time is spent monitoring and analyzing bills, attending hearings and providing technical support for tribally backed proposals, Plummer-Alvernaz is also registered as a lobbyist and testifies on a wide variety of measures. The group's presence marks the first time that tribal lawmakers in the Montana House and Senate have had independent and targeted support services in the Capitol. Also assisting this session's seven Indian legislators on a part-time basis is Steve Kelly, an attorney with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Kelly, however, is not affiliated with COIC.
Many Indian-related bills in this year's Legislature, especially those that require the expenditure of state funds, have not fared well. But COIC organizers say the true test of their successes is that tribal consultation and involvement in all types of policy decisions is slowly growing, as well as becoming more accepted.
But a main challenge, the group leaders say, is overcoming stereotyping and educating non-Indian lawmakers about the complexities of tribal sovereignty and the parameters of meaningful government-to-government consultation. One sign of progress, they note, is there have been fewer racist comments made publicly this session in committee hearings and on the House and Senate floors.
"Our presence here has made a lot of people uncomfortable," Bruce Plummer acknowledges. On the other hand, COIC organizers say many legislators welcome the opportunity to learn more about tribes, their needs and their unique perspectives on the issues that affect them.
The group's deeper involvement in crafting state policy, as well as the leadership roles several tribal lawmakers are growing into, has also piqued the interest of a lot of folks back home, including many folks that never before expressed interest in state legislative matters.
"That's one of the real exciting things about what we've been doing here," says Bruce Plummer. "There seems to be a heightened awareness on the reservations that we work with." Plummer, Sun Child and Plummer-Alvernaz add that continuing tribal involvement between legislative sessions will be critical because much of the next session's groundwork is laid during the period. Although there are ongoing discussions about annual sessions, Montana lawmakers now only convene every other year.
COIC is governed by an eight-member executive board. Chaired by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, other participants include Northern Cheyenne Vice Chairman Joe Fox Jr., Fort Belknap Community Council member Walter Horn, Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board member Walter Clark, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member Earl Old Person, Crow Tribal Council member Hubert Two Leggings, William Wagon from Wyoming's Eastern Shoshone Tribe, and Jim Baker from Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa.
Even though all of Montana's state legislators are Democrats, Plummer-Alvernaz says the group strives to remain nonpartisan, a key ingredient in working with the GOP majorities in the Legislature, as well as Republican Gov. Judy Martz. Along with legislative work, COIC helps tribal communities with various support services, including helping citizens learn the ropes of the political process. The group is also involved in a variety of youth-related projects across the state. None of COIC's funding comes from the state or federal governments.
"We believe communities are able to heal themselves" and can make their own decisions about how much they want to be involved in policymaking, Plummer-Alvernaz explains. "We wait for situations of inclusion, instead of being the be-all and end-all of policy, because we're not."
"Change is coming about gradually," adds Sun Child. "It's good to be here. The experience of being here is just awesome."