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Planning for Montana "Town Halls" Unleashes Spate of Tribal Insults

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HELENA, Mont. ? A proposal to convene a series of "town hall" meetings to help improve relations between state and tribal leaders in Montana sparked a flurry of ill-received remarks at a recent legislative gathering.

G. Bruce Meyers, the state's Indian affairs coordinator, was presenting the proposal to the interim State-Tribal Relations Committee on Jan. 9 when debate spilled over to the topic of American Indians utilizing welfare benefits and whether spending state money on the meetings would be a waste of resources.

State Sen. Jerry O'Neil, a Kalispell Republican who mistakenly thought the state was poised to allocate $36,000 for the project, opined that taxpayer money might be better spent sending "a roll of postage stamps" to reservation residents so they can file written complaints with the state. He also questioned the wisdom of hosting hundreds of tribal leaders in Helena because the committee already conducts occasional meetings on Montana reservations.

Sen. Ed Butcher, a Winifred Republican who drew fire during the 2001 legislative session for saying reservations are "ghettos" where tribal members are held in "bondage," upped the ante by implying that many reservation Indians are lazy and would rather draw welfare checks than work.

"They're unwilling or incapable of working like normal outside people do," Butcher said of tribal members who allegedly return to reservations so they can collect welfare for longer periods than at off-reservation locales. "The elders or the parents, and I hear this all the time, are encouraging them to move back home."

Other input from Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, that reservations are a form of racial segregation that will continue to promote discrimination until they are dissolved helped prompt the three tribal legislators on the panel ? Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning; Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer; and Sen. Gerald Pease, D-Lodge Grass ? to denounce the comments.

"We're supposed to be working on ways to improve the situation, but all we seem to be doing is making more barriers," Juneau said after the meeting. "It was just too much."

Juneau said she was disappointed and embarrassed by the three men's remarks. She added that she's concerned their attitudes and "lack of respect" will drive more wedges in the long-standing rift between the state and many Montana tribes, despite continuing efforts by Republican Gov. Judy Martz to reach out to Indian people.

"You'd expect legislators to have a little more understanding of tribal issues," she said. "It's difficult to deal with. It leaves you with a real kind of unsettled feeling. Your first reaction is being angry with them, but then you have to figure out how to deal with individuals like that. The level of ignorance on the part of leadership in the state is troubling. Sen. Butcher, Rep. Peterson and Sen. O'Neil's remarks just continue the adversity between tries and the state of Montana."

Myers, a Chippewa-Cree tribal member appointed by Martz to the coordinator's post last fall, said the town hall process traces back to traditional tribal times when contentious issues were typically debated in a group setting until consensus was reached. He wants to bring legislators, state agency administrators and tribal leaders together to discuss issues of mutual concern in the fields of education, health care, corrections and economic development, among other topics. He hopes the first gathering, funded with grants from foundations, business and other private and public donations, can take place in May or June.

"The tribes say they don't trust state government and state government says they don't know how to relate to Indians," he explained. "The town hall meeting is more than a conference, an institute or a workshop. This allows tribes to come to the table in a government-to-government relationship. The idea is to get some success going so the tribes gain a trust. We're appealing to tribes to use the 40 or 50 years of dealing directly with the federal government and bringing that same sophistication when dealing with the state."

Myers, who says Martz is encouraging his organizing efforts, envisions the main town hall gathering lasting 2-1/2 days, with follow-up meetings planned later. He's in the process of meeting with all state agencies that would be involved, as well as paying visits to each of the state's seven reservations to explain his ideas. So far, he said, responses have been positive. He also hopes to send out questionnaires to determine how various state officials and tribes view their current relationships.

"It's a process and concept we can all relate to," he said of town hall meetings. "It's not a new concept. This is a healthy way to resolve issues. This is a healthy alternative to litigation. I think most tribes say they'd rather negotiate than litigate. This provides a format for that. You can get a lot more done if everyone is on board."

Myers explained "there's a new set of power relationships" now that tribes are exerting more self-governance authority and demanding that other governments treat them with respect.

"Tribes know when they're not being consulted," he said. "Likewise, tribes need to realize there's a whole number of resources available through state and federal governments. If the tribes learn about state government and learn to talk legislative language, and the state learns about the tradition of consensus within tribal governments and about government-to-government consultation, we'd all be further ahead."

"I might have been asleep as the switch or something, but I didn't hear anything but that the government is going to pay for this," O'Neil said in a telephone interview last week. "If they find some Sugar Daddy who wants to spend $36,000 on this, that's fine with me. I'm worried that it might be duplicating what we already do, though."

Butcher, who has an adopted, full-blooded Indian daughter, added that he thinks the town hall concept "is good if you can get beyond rehashing the same old issues" and it doesn't cost the state a lot of money.

"I think any time you have dialogue, it's beneficial," he said, adding that his comments at the hearing were actually "a kind of tongue-in-cheek thing."

"I'd say it was a good-natured discussion going on," he explained. "The Indians got a little upset, but their comments were still good-natured. There's no racism in this thing. It's just common sense. There's nothing really meant to be demeaning in anything I've said."

Myers and Juneau, however, said the remarks underline the need for more education about Indian issues and venues such as the town hall meetings to expand cross-cultural understanding.

"Sometimes good things can come out of bad things," Juneau said. "We absolutely need to learn more about each other and reduce the level of prejudice and ignorance that was evidenced by some of the language used."

"It's because of these misguided perceptions that people don't realize it's a new day for state-tribal relations," Myers added. "We've just got to move ahead. With those comments, we just realize there's a lot of work to be done. I'm optimistic. There's more to be gained by working together than by not coming to the table."