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Economic development, repatriation bills aired in Montana legislative hearings

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HELENA, Mont. - Echoing concerns about a tight state budget, the sponsor of a legislative bill to extend the life of the Montana State-Tribal Economic Development Commission stripped all new funding from his proposal.

Rep. Bill Eggers, D-Crow Agency, initially planned to request a $400,000 state appropriation for the commission to continue its work until mid-2005. Instead, no new funding will be sought, and the panel wants to keep about $150,000 left from the current biennium.

The House Appropriations Committee voted Jan. 18 to allow the carryover money to be used for future activities, but said the commission's tenure should end in mid-2003.

The commission, designed to improve economic conditions on the state's seven American Indian reservations, was established under a bill sponsored by Eggers in the 1999 session.

The panel is charged with economic analysis of tribal contributions to the state's economy and developing a framework to attract more federal and private development money. Eggers, a member of the Crow tribe, says improved reservation economies will help Indians and non-Indians alike.

The nine-member commission received $200,000 in state funding in 1999, but its work was delayed, in part, by the resignation of Wyman McDonald as state Indian affairs coordinator. A successor, Louie Clayborn wasn't appointed until early last year. At times the panel had difficulties maintaining a quorum at meetings.

A contract to begin the analysis was awarded last fall to RJS & Associates, a private consulting firm on the Rocky Boy's Reservation. Clayborn said a preliminary report should be complete soon for legislative review.

Under House Bill 21, requested by the Law, Justice and Indian Affairs Interim Committee, the commission would be expanded to allow participation by the Little Shell Band of Chippewa, which is seeking final federal recognition from Congress.

Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs testified that HB 21 is supported by Republican Gov. Judy Martz. Other lawmakers and tribal leaders spoke in favor, as well.

"We need this type of legislation in Montana," said Sen. Glenn Roush, D-Cut Bank, whose district includes the Blackfeet reservation. "I think it's a step in the right direction."

HB21 also received support from the Montana Catholic Conference and the Montana Association of Churches whose representatives said economic justice is a prime goal on and off reservations. The Northern Cheyenne, Salish and Kootenai and Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes also presented testimony.

Eggers told fellow lawmakers that after the commission begins to secure government grants, the panel's work can become self-sustaining. "Our goal is to fill the chasm between the tribes and the state of Montana. It's a win-win for everybody in the state."

No opposition to the bill surfaced at the hearing.

Word with senator

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., met with the tribal legislative leaders Jan. 12 to begin developing plans for a statewide seminar to deal strictly with reservation economic development issues.

Tribal lobbyist George Ochenski, a key member of the Senate Finance Committee, suggested that Baucus consider introducing legislation to ensure that tribes get a fair cut of the federal government budget surplus, predicted by some analysts to total $3 trillion.

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Baucus said there are many competing needs for the money, and that the national tax-reduction proposal advocated by President-elect George W. Bush could potentially eat up $1.9 trillion of the predicted total. Agricultural interests and prescription-drug law reformers, among many others, are clamoring for whatever is left.

"If we do (have a surplus), it seems almost inhumane not to target the people who need it most," Ochenski said, adding that Baucus should sponsor a new Native American Economic Act to help struggling tribes.

Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, noted that economic development and expanded support for tribal education must go hand-in-hand. She said a recent study she conducted shows that about 56 percent of the American Indian students who enroll in reservation high schools in Montana eventually drop out. Statewide figures show a 42 percent Indian drop-out rate.

"They need hope."

Repatriation bill hits snag

The Montana Historical Society drew heavy fire at a Jan. 12 legislative hearing for trying to scuttle a bill to allow more human remains and burial objects to be returned to their rightful relatives.

Rep. Gail Gutsche, a Missoula Democrat, is sponsoring House Bill 165 to provide a mechanism to return remains and burial objects taken from sites on private and state land before July 1, 1991, including publicly held collections, as well as artifacts and remains claimed by private parties.

All state agencies and museums in Montana would be required to inventory human skeletal remains and related burial objects in their possession, determine their origin, cultural affiliation and how they were obtained.

Within three months of completing the survey, the organization would be required to provide the information to a state burial board, the state historical preservation office and to all tribal governments in Montana.

Parties with a claim to the bones and burial objects could file a formal request with the state for repatriation, triggering a hearing process. A burial board decision could be appealed into state district court.

"These are real people, real Montanans, real remains," Gutsche said. "They could be related to any of us" of any ethnic origin. The bill will ensure remains "won't be treated like a science project."

The compromise apparently began unraveling when state officials realized a prime collection of Native artifacts discovered near Wilsall in the 1960s, would be affected. The so-called Anzick Collection consists of more than 100 stone tools believed to be between 11,000 and 12,000 years old.

Mel Anzick, owner of the land where the discovery was made, angered many by implying that if remains and burial artifacts are turned over to tribes or individual Indians there might be an inclination to sell them on the open market.

Arnie Olsen, the historical society's director, told the committee his agency supports HB 165, but he believes repatriation should be voluntary, not mandatory, and the Anzick Collection should be exempted.

Tony Incashola, director of the Flathead Reservation's Salish-Pend Oreilles Culture Committee, reminded those gathered that, "There's a purpose. There's a reason" for why ancestors were buried the way they were.

"Our lives as Native Americans didn't start in 1991 or 1990," he said, adding that as populations increase throughout the region, more and more remains will be uncovered. "... They need to come home ... Open your hearts and really take a hard look at this."

No immediate action was taken on the bill, and committee Chairman Jim Shockley, R-Victor, promised participants he'd issue an announcement before an initial vote is taken.