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Culture, sovereignty at issue in expanding reservation economies

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HELENA, Mont. ? Educating non-Indians about cultural and sovereignty issues is a prime component in successfully expanding reservation economies, American Indian leaders from around the state agree.

'We're open for business, but we want to take control of our own affairs,' Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board member Rick Kirn told participants at recent State-Tribal Relations Day events, the first known commemoration of its kind in Montana.

But, Kirn added, substantial economic progress won't be made on reservations until outside investors and government officials have a better understanding of treaties, jurisdictional issues, and the cultural customs that make American Indian people unique. In addition, business leaders must help educate tribes about their expectations if they choose to do business on reservations. The relationship, he said, is truly a two-way street.

Speaking at a forum on economic development, Kirn said tribal governments need to 'shore up' their operations, minimize political interference with business ventures and build trust and confidence among their own people, as well as with outsiders. Tribes also should help develop community action plans to identify needs and determine what types of businesses are acceptable, and which are not.

Tribal leaders agree that Republican Gov. Judy Martz, whose office organized the day's activities after she visited each of the state's seven reservations this summer, is taking unprecedented steps to connect with tribes. Those invited to a private luncheon Sept. 28 at the governor's mansion said it's the first time in their memory any Montana chief executive extended such hospitality.

'New administration, new rules of engagement,' noted Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Billings-based Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. 'She's working hard at listening. She knows we're going to agree to disagree.'

Recently appointed state Indian Affairs Coordinator G. Bruce Meyers added that improved communication between Montana tribes and state government can do nothing but improve the climate needed to help American Indians advance economically.

'There's been a history of mistrust, of both sides pulling out, of miscommunication,' Meyers said, adding that the upcoming Lewis and Clark Bicentennial is an ideal venue for tribes, the state and private interests to pull together.

'They're coming to see the cowboys and the Indians,' he said of millions of tourists predicted to descend upon the region for related events.

Other speakers said state leaders need to be more open to tribal concerns on every level, from helping plan projects to improve reservation water and sewer plants, to upgrading telecommunications and transportation systems and connecting potential investors with tribal and non-tribal enterprises. What's good for reservations is good for the entire state, they said, adding that the notion of tribal needs being separate from the general population's needs must be revamped.

In the education arena, state and tribal leaders need to ensure that teachers are taught about Montana tribes and their history and that the information is passed on to students in the classroom, said former Office of Public Instruction specialist Bob Parsley, who now works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development program.

Parsley said more American Indians also need to be appointed to state boards and commissions, including the Board of Regents, where former member Deborah Wetsit, an American Indian representative, recently was replaced by former Montana House Speaker John Mercer, a Polson Republican who has sided against tribal interests in numerous political battles over the years. Other speakers noted that several American Indian candidates were interested in the job, but apparently were not seriously considered.

Parsley and others also called on the state to update the Tribal Nations of Montana Handbook, a basic primer on each of the state's 13 tribes distributed to legislators, agency officials and others who work on American Indian issues. In addition, tribal officials need to work with journalists to ensure that more 'positive' stories about reservations are distributed throughout the state, Parsley said.

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A statewide tribal economic development summit sponsored by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., earlier this year in Great Falls spawned several task forces that are keying in on ways to bring tribal economies into the state's mainstream.

Mark Sansaver, who does development work on the Fort Peck Reservation, said one panel is organizing seminars to help educate businesses about tax incentives, tax credits and other advantages of locating on reservations. At least four meetings are planned for next year across the state.

Mort Dreamer, the Crow Tribe's chief executive officer, said educating non-Indians about tribal issues can be a maddening experience. He cited ongoing attempts by the Crow Tribe to establish a business relationship with US Bank in Billings.

'US Bank knows absolutely nothing about American Indians in a sovereignty sense,' said Dreamer, a former high-ranking BIA official in Washington, D.C. 'They don't know much beyond a late movie with John Wayne and the Indians. I hope all banks in Billings aren't like US Bank. It's been frustrating as hell.'

Maria Valandra, an official with First Interstate Bank in Billings who moderated one of the forums, said she agreed that bankers and other business leaders need to become better acquainted with tribes and their issues.

'When we come to the table, I think it's important to know who we are and where we came from,' said Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Matt added that the state should allow tribes to have 'meaningful gaming' in the state, which would help make them more self-sufficient.

'I think there is not a tribal representative in this room that would not like to get off the dole,' Matt told Martz. 'We were forced to keep a form of government without the means.'

Matt handed the governor a revised proposal to end the ongoing Class III gaming stalemate on the Flathead Reservation, where an interim agreement between Salish and Kootenai leaders and the state expires in November. He urged Martz to quickly respond.

David Gibson, recently hired by Martz as the state's new economic development czar, told participants he sees many parallels as he listens to the concerns of tribal leaders and other state residents. Three main impediments to growth appear to be access to capital, inadequate training and education and shortfalls in infrastructure, he said.

'They're the same things we've got to do around the state,' Gibson said, adding that some tribal issues indeed 'have a unique flavor' where solutions will need to be put 'into a cultural context.'

State Rep. Norma Bixby, a Northern Cheyenne and Lame Deer Democrat, said it's unfair that American Indians don't have a greater say in state decisions, especially those involving education, which remains a key to advancing tribes economically. But the doors to greater participation often seemed closed, she said.

'We always have to push ourselves in, it seems. We have to come in and be part of the process.'

'It's critical that we respect and build on these relationships,' Martz said in her keynote address, where she urged tribal leaders to be relentless in breaking down barriers, real or perceived. 'The more we know about each other, the better we'll be able to define our wants and needs. Let us know your feelings. Let us know what is going on inside you. Don't let it smolder.'