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Montana leaders explore lawsuits, federal funding, legislative concerns

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FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, Mont. - During a mid-December meeting, tribal officials debated the merits of a federal redistricting lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice has lodged against Blame County, which includes much of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

The lawsuit, aimed at gaining greater American Indian representation on the county's Board of Commissioners, was joined earlier this year by the conservative, Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is representing county officials at no cost.

Federal attorneys contend Indian candidates have historically been denied seats on the commission because elections are conducted on an at-large basis. The Justice Department wants commission members to run from separate districts in the future, which would strengthen the Indian vote. They say the current system violates the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act.

Delores Plumage and Bill Stiff Arm, residents of the Fort Belknap Reservation, told members of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council the case could go to trial early next year. A main concern, Plumage said, is that attorneys for the legal foundation are arguing over the definition of "Indian" and whether the federal government's case is solid under current legal precedent. She added that the American Civil Liberties Union's Atlanta-based Voting Rights Project may join the case on the behalf of area tribal members.

Fort Belknap Vice Chairman Ben Speak Thunder noted the area's Indian population is growing rapidly, and that creates a need for more county services. Having better representation at the county level will help ensure that services are allocated fairly, he said.

Council members also heard a presentation from BIA officials on changes in the upcoming federal budget. BIA Area Director Keith Beartusk of Billings noted the agency's law enforcement programs will have about $149 million to work with in the coming fiscal year, a significant increase. School construction funds have also been increased, he said, and the agency's trust-land accounting program will see a $31 million boost over 2000 levels.

The BIA's trust program has been under heavy fire for decades of mismanagement and the second major phase of a federal lawsuit over the issue is about to begin in Washington, D.C.

Browning resident Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the case, gave an update on the court proceedings.

Beartusk said the main problem with past management of trust accounts has been a lack of resources within the agency to keep up with the program. Congress has now recognized that need with increased appropriations, he said.

"What's driving this is the Cobell litigation," Beartusk explained. "We're doing the very best we can with what we have."

One potential snag he identified is that some tribes, including the powerful Navajo Nation, are arguing that the allocation of new trust program money is not fair and should be based solely on a reservation's amount of trust-land acreage. Top agency officials disagree, Beartusk said, and believe the distribution should be based at least in part on the workload entailed at each regional office to administer the program.

James St. Goddard, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, told the gathering the federal government's methods of allocating funds needs reform, mainly because it pits tribes against each other.

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"The process we follow now is the government's," St. Goddard said. "It has to stop. It has never been fair. None of this is helping. It's just creating more havoc."

Beartusk said he agreed and added the BIA is striving to correct past inequities.

"This is our attempt to fix that," he said, adding that the agency's need-based budget proposal for the next fiscal year totaled $7.5 billion, but Congress only approved about $2 billion in spending.

Indian Health Service representatives reviewed portions of their upcoming budget and explained components of a new and controversial level-of-need study that's drawing fire around the nation. Members of the Chippewa-Cree Tribal Health Department presented a critical analysis of the study and suggested ways of countering its effects.

Louie Clayborn, Montana's coordinator of Indian affairs, said a recent review of vehicle licensing taxes by Montana Attorney General Joe Mazurek was only preliminary, and a full-blown opinion would need to be formally requested to give it the force of law. Mazurek's review came in the wake of Legislative Referendum 115, a November ballot measure that changed the way vehicles are registered. In his review, Mazurek said tribal members living on the reservation, as well as tribal governments, remain exempt from vehicle taxes assessed by the state.

Clayborn said new U.S. Census figures will likely show a large increase in the number of Indians living in Montana. That means it's important to work even harder to ensure that state programs adequately serve the state's Native population. He urged tribal leaders to be strongly involved in the upcoming Legislature, especially on appropriations that could benefit their constituents.

Clayborn, appointed to his post last January by Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, said incoming Gov.-elect Judy Martz has not made a decision on whether he will remain in his job, but did ask for his resume.

Jonathan Windy Boy, chairman of the leaders council, added that Martz has agreed to meet with tribal representatives at least once a month during her tenure, and at least twice a month during the legislative session.

Sarah Dudley, an aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., told the group that tribally related projects got a mixed review during the most recent session of Congress. In the success category were funding bills for the Fort Peck Reservation's water project and approval for the Chippewa-Cree Tribe's water compact on the Rocky Boy's Reservation, she said. Impact aid funding for schools also saw a $30 million increase nationally. Baucus had advocated for a $100 million increase.

The senator's push for a fully funded Native American Telecommunications Act, which would create a $2 billion loan fund, also was rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Congress, Dudley said, primarily because it was deemed too expensive. She added that Baucus supported changes in the federal unemployment tax structure, which will benefit tribes.

In the coming year, the senator plans to help create separate initiatives for reservations as part of his economic development task force work. He also wants to help tribal colleges secure more reliable funding, she said.

Fort Peck tribal member Ernie Big Horn asked the council for its support of a program to create youth leadership groups on reservations across Montana. Youth councils are operating on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations, he said, and more are needed to help keep Indian youngsters involved in positive activities. The first of an annual statewide conference on tribal youth issues is scheduled next summer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Vicki Dunham, vice president of field services for the Great Falls-based Special Olympics Montana program, invited tribal leaders and program managers to help her organization better serve Native Americans. The group has recently unveiled an "Indigenous peoples" outreach program to ensure disabled reservation residents are included in Special Olympics events.