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Montana governor pledges to work closely with tribes

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HELENA, Mont. - American Indian leaders from around the state received a warm welcome Jan. 9 from Gov. Judy Martz, who has promised to strengthen relations with Montana tribes.

"I truly believe we have a lot more in common than not in common," the governor told more than a dozen tribal leaders, legislators and others who gathered in her office for an hour-long meeting. "Please don't be afraid."

Martz, a Republican, was sworn in Jan. 2. She served four years as lieutenant governor under Marc Racicot, who was prohibited by voter-imposed term limits from seeking another term.

Tribal leaders raised a host of issues, including concerns about the state coordinator of Indian affairs. Current coordinator, Louie Clayborn, appointed early last year by Gov. Racicot, has come under fire from some Indian leaders, but it remains unclear whether tribes will ask Martz to replace him.

Under state law, tribal leaders submit the names of five applicants to the governor before a new coordinator is appointed. While Clayborn could apparently extend his tenure at the pleasure of Martz, the governor said she wants to talk to each tribe separately before deciding.

"If the desire is to appoint a new coordinator, then I'll do that," Martz said. "It is my heart's desire to do what's right by tribes."

Jonathan Windy Boy, a Chippewa-Cree council member and chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, asked Martz to sign a new proclamation that promises the state will have a true government-to-government relationship with tribes. Racicot signed such a document in the early 1990s, but didn't revise it in recent years, to the dismay of some tribal leaders.

Martz promised to consider the proclamation as soon as it can be drawn up.

"What we want to do is have the respect for one another," Windy Boy said. "That is the true nature of that."

State help for financially strapped tribal colleges was discussed. Windy Boy noted that Racicot included about $800,000 to fund non-beneficiary students in the final proposed budget, but the Martz administration pulled it out when faced with tightened revenues.

Windy Boy, among others, asked the governor to reinstate the money.

He also asked Martz to support the opening of a new livestock brand office on Rocky Boy's Reservation to serve Indian ranchers, and to support a move to have all of that reservation included within a single county. Two counties - Hill and Choteau - split the area, causing unnecessary jurisdictional squabbles, he said.

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Montana tribes also want a cut of revenues returned to the state through the federal beef check-off program, he said. Under the program, all sellers of beef cattle are assessed a $1 per head fee for every animal sold.

"To us, we view it as a tax. There's no benefits coming back."

Patt Iron Cloud, a member of the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board, added that federal money earmarked for tribal programs should be passed directly to tribes, rather than being administered by state agencies. She said tribes are concerned about waiving their sovereign immunity when they sign state contracts.

"We know the needs of the tribes that we serve," said Iron Cloud. "We will not always agree on everything, but that's why the Heavenly Father made us all different."

Iron Cloud said tribes didn't see a lot of Gov. Racicot, and she told Martz she hopes that trend changes with the new administration. She presented the governor with an intricate necklace she'd beaded.

Martz said she'll try to visit each of the state's seven reservations during her first six months in office.

"We'll make it there more often," she said, encouraging tribal leaders to notify her when special events and activities are planned.

Iron Cloud also asked Martz to elevate the state coordinator's position, a branch of the governor's office, to cabinet level and increase the salary. The governor said that move would cost about $250,000, and she could make no promises it would happen anytime soon. She vowed to strengthen the position, nonetheless.

"Either way, I want the person to be effective with tribes," Martz said.

Curtis Horn, a newly elected member of the Fort Belknap Community Council, said he can sympathize with Martz coming into a new, and often confusing, position of power. Horn said he'd like to work with the state to resolve an array of issues, from law-enforcement agreements to combating drug abuse on reservations.

Second-term Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, praised Martz for reaching out to tribes and noted that he's already met with her more often than he did with Racicot. He said he hopes the mutual spirit of cooperation continues.

Economic development concerns were raised, including the need to renegotiate several state-tribal gaming compacts which expire soon. Tribal leaders said they'd like to see more Indians appointed to state advisory boards and commissions, have a greater say in social-welfare decisions, and help devise ways to reduce the number of Native Americans in the state's prison system.

The group vowed to meet with Martz again, possibly as early as Feb. 1.