ROCKY BOY, Mont. - Chippewa-Cree Tribal Chairman Bert Corcoran is adamant when the talk turns to tribes taking over reservation programs that were run by the federal government.
"It made me a new believer out of me that all tribes should do this," he says of the fact there are no federal employees left on the 122,000-acre Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
"It's the only way to come out of bondage. Compacting allows you to set your priorities. It allowed us to provide more employment. It's just the way to go."
In 1994, the Chippewa-Cree tribe took what's known across Indian country as "the big gulp." The tribe, which occupies the smallest of Montana's seven reservations, decided to compact all federal programs at once. While the decision was monumental, Corcoran says it was the best move the tribe could make in its ongoing quest for self-determination.
"Compacting is the neatest piece of legislation there is," Corcoran says. "The money comes right down to us. We can invest it, and it adds a nice chunk of interest. We get a lot of bang for the buck."
When the BIA ran most of the Chippewa-Cree programs, Corcoran says, about 85 percent of the annual allocation went to administrative salaries, and only about 15 percent of the money actually went to services. Before compacting, there were about 120 federal employees on the reservation. Now there are about 220 people working for the tribally run government, and about 30 percent of the overall funding makes it to the ground.
"We have good, trained people," Corcoran says. "It was a way we could utilize them. There's just a lot of things you can do when you compact, and you couldn't ask for a better relationship with the federal government. In negotiations, we generally get a substantial amount of what we need. You could always use more, of course. But I have no major complaints. Once you do it, it's a lot better operation."
The Chippewa-Cree tribe now runs all its own natural resource programs, the reservation's law enforcement system, the tribal judiciary, all social services programs and a road maintenance program.
In the health-care arena, the tribe manages a small outpatient clinic, an urgent care center, a full laboratory and X-ray department, as well as mental health and elder programs. Nearly all specialists, such as doctors, dentists and psychologists, are contracted for services, rather than serving as full-time employees with the Indian Health Service.
"I think we've done a better job of offering health care services than IHS did," Corcoran says.
"We also offer traditional medicine and acupuncture, which IHS wouldn't do."
Unlike some tribes that experienced funding shortfalls once programs were released from federal control, Corcoran says the Chippewa-Cree tribe has benefited financially, in part because the invested blocks of money yield interest that can be used for other expenses.
For example, he says, tribal council salaries historically came from other, internal income sources. Now they're paid with compact-fund dividends. The financial bonus also has allowed the tribe to build up a trust fund for future operations.
"We're sovereign nations in a lot of ways, but in many ways we're not because we depend on the federal government," he says. "The sooner tribes become more self-sufficient, the better off they're going to be."
Another plus, he says, is that job descriptions formerly bound up in stringent federal regulations can be melded, allowing varied talents to be better utilized, he contends.
"Other tribes could do this. It's enhanced our total program. I think once we get it fairly well refined, it will be even better. But we have to be careful not to institutionalize it."
Corcoran has been deeply involved in self-governance matters on the Rocky Boy's Reservation since 1989, when he retired from a long career in education and started a consulting firm that focused on tribal health and education issues. In 1996, he was elected tribal chairman in an at-large election. While he plans to "retire" again when his four-year term ends in November, he's already talking about helping the tribe start its own bank or savings and loan outlet.
"I think we could make it work," says Corcoran, who sits on the Wells Fargo Bank board of directors in Havre, a city of 10,000 just northeast of the reservation.
Corcoran, 68, says he has few regrets about his tenure, except he would have liked to provide more economic opportunities for tribal members, at times facing a 70 percent unemployment rate.
Under his leadership the tribe has moved forward on many fronts, and he acknowledges that a recently approved water compact with the state and federal governments will undoubtedly improve the reservation's economic climate.
When he started in the leadership position, he said the tribe faced huge financial deficits which have been cleared up and the tribe enjoys a clean credit rating.
"We walked into a pretty rugged situation. But we've been able to maintain and not get into any trouble. We're gaining capital, which we never had before. We've paid all the bills. We've got good relations back again."
Overall, Corcoran and other council members manage an annual budget of about $14.5 million for general operations and another $8.5 million that's allocated for health-related services. If all financing is approved by Congress in coming weeks, the water compact will garner about $51 million for various reservation improvements, studies and economic development projects.
The compact, he says, is an especially important milepost, especially considering that when Chippewa-Cree water talks started 12 years ago, "the hair was standing up on everyone's necks.
"The non-Indians said, 'Who are you Indians to be taking water from us?'" Corcoran recalls, adding that all sides have come together to pound out an equitable agreement.
"I thing we've done a pretty good job of negotiating it," he says. "Our people have worked hard. They did some long, hard negotiations."
Corcoran grew up on the Rocky Boy's Reservation but moved to Billings to work on a teaching degree after graduating from high school in 1949. His college years were interrupted by the Korean War and he spent two years in the Army, specializing in cold-weather operations, primarily in Austria. He returned to school and earned certifications in elementary and secondary education. He later earned a master's degree and received administrative credentials at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Over the years, Corcoran served as a teacher and superintendent at a variety of schools on Montana reservations. He also spent two years heading up the guidance and testing program at a rural school district in Northern California before coming back home.
Corcoran says he thought shifting from education to tribal government would be an easy transition, but it was far from that.
"I was kind of naive," he says. "I thought you could operate it like a school district. I thought we could zero in a lot tighter, but it's political. You sort of have to accept that. You win some and you lose some."
As chairman, Corcoran gained a reputation for being a good listener, a staunch advocate and a skillful strategist. Still, leadership factions have taken their toll, and the small tribe struggles to remain cohesive amid constant pressures from outside and within.
If he were staying in office, Corcoran says he would focus on getting more of the tribal membership involved in the council's decision-making process. He'd also push for more constitutional reforms, in part so the reservation can become more attractive to entrepreneurs.
While some goals weren't met during his time at the helm, many others were, and that brings Corcoran distinct satisfaction.
"I leave with no qualms," he says. "There's still some work to be done. But as a sovereign nation, we have to do it, not someone else."