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Gov. Steve Bullock Talks Tribal Language & Increasing the Native Vote

In an interview with ICTMN, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.) discusses tribal language preservation, federal recognition, and Native voting rights.

Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.), who took office in January, wants tribal languages to survive, so he’s putting his money where his mouth is, having just awarded $2 million to tribes in his state to support their language preservation efforts. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, he discusses the award, which he sees as just a starting point for funding here, as well as tribal federal recognition for the Little Shell Tribe and the importance of the Native vote in upcoming elections.

Please share what your new tribal language preservation plan is all about.

The cultural heritage and the history of the tribal nations are what began the story of Montana. We are committed to protecting their cultural languages, which are not only vital to the identities of the tribal nations, but to our overall state. I think we owe that to the future generations. This plan is to make sure the culture and heritage of our tribal nations are intact.

Native Americans have long been pushing for increased funding for language preservation, noting that language is the building block of their unique cultures. What got your attention here?

Talking to some of the leaders of our Indian nations about the loss of language and the importance of preservation has made me realize that we need to have effective education in this area across the state. Greater than the conversations with the tribal leaders, I think about my oldest daughter who is in sixth grade. Not that many years ago in Montana, we finally started to get more serious about Indian education for all. Caroline, my daughter, has a better sense of our Indian nations in Montana – and the incredibly important role that they play – than I did through high school and even college. It’s more than part of our heritage, it’s part of our path forward.

Why do you think Montana schools are doing a better job teaching about American Indians?

I think our legislature is becoming more aware of its importance. The legislature has funded programs that have begun at the tribal level. By putting the dollars in and saying that all children should know the role that American Indians have played in Montana, and not just historically, but today—I think that made a big difference.

How will you measure the results of this language preservation funding?

We secured this money, asking each of the tribal governments to tell us what can be accomplished. Each of the tribal nations have put together some incredible programs, like e-books, road signs, and CDs. I look to them to make sure that the money is used effectively. We will see how it goes and what more might be needed in the future.

Do you anticipate awarding more in this area in the future?

The money that we were able to invest was a one-time appropriation. Rather than keeping the money in Helena, I wanted to get it to where it will do the most and best—out with the tribes. We’ll get all of that money out the door and working, and then we need to look the next legislative session to ask what were the results, and can we do more.

Tribal leaders have long been asking the federal government to do more for tribal language preservation. Do you think your plan will give the federal government an example to follow?

I think that we need to make sure that culture is preserved. Part of that culture is the vital tribal languages. We do not want to lose that. I recognize that there are tremendous needs across the board for Indian country at the federal level, but this is a need that I think is significant enough to focus on.

What other Indian issues are on your radar?

I put economic development in Indian country as a priority. When we launched our effort to make a better business plan for the state, we made sure Indian country was included. I have appointed American Indians to some key roles and offices. We have also been able to increase dollars for tribal college assistance programs, and support the costs of non-beneficiary students at tribal colleges. I think we’re off to a real good start, but there is certainly much more to do.

The Little Shell Tribe, which is receiving funding under your language preservation plan, continues to fight for federal recognition. What is your position on their recognition?

At the state level, we recognized them long ago, and we give them all of the opportunities to get state dollars as we do federally recognized tribes. Their flag flies with all the other tribal flags in my office. A month ago, I met with their governing council to talk about how we can do more to push for their federal recognition. We are all hopeful.

When you were attorney general in Montana you issued an advisory opinion that told the secretary of state that setting up satellite offices on reservations across the state would be legal and doable, but she has instead fought Indian efforts to establish such offices. Are you disappointed?

There is still ongoing litigation that I certainly don’t want to talk about in the middle of it. But we really do need to make sure that all Montanans have the opportunity to vote. We’re a state of 147,000 square miles. We need to make voting easier and more accessible to all Montanans, especially those of our tribal nations.

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Do you think the Native vote will play an important factor in the upcoming House and Senate races?

I both think and hope it will. As attorney general, I made the commitment to meet on a government-to-government basis as many times as necessary. I forged some good friendships and strong working relationships. Certainly, I think that the Indian vote makes a difference in getting people elected.

A recent report said that Republican Rep. Steve Daines is building relationships with tribal leaders as he tries to win a Senate seat in 2014. Do you think Democrats are paying attention?

Yes. I have been to the tribal nations not just to get a vote, but because the importance of them to Montana as a whole. We need to make sure that the challenges of tribal governments are addressed. Folks need to do more than talk the talk; they need to walk the walk.

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Is there anything more that you could be doing as governor to get the satellite offices established in more Indian country areas in your state?

Once the litigation is done, we need to make sure voting – there are places where it’s an hour and a half to the county seat if somebody wants to early vote –is definitely accessible to everyone.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.