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Tester’s Big Gamble: The Push for Indian Education, Health Care and Environment

During his time as head of SCIA, Montana Sen. Jon Tester has done what no other chairman has done in recent memory: He has visited Indian communities.

During his tenure as the head of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Montana Senator Jon Tester has done what no other chairman has done in recent memory: He has logged a considerable number of miles visiting Indian communities across the country to see for himself the needs and concerns of tribes whose school and health care systems are over capacity and understaffed, as well as some of the most pressing environmental problems facing indigenous people since the 1960s. By engaging in an unprecedented amount of “shoe leather diplomacy” this year, he and his staff have taken an extensive inventory of the most urgent needs and budgetary issues—and how to address them in culturally appropriate, practical ways that provide solutions unique to each community.

At the top of the list of his upcoming legislative agenda is the improvement of Indian education, which Tester considers to be among the most important priorities for tribes in the coming decades. In an exclusive interview with ICTMN, he outlined his plans for introducing new, comprehensive legislation in November that is designed to address a variety of problems and gaps in Native school districts.

“We saw some amazing teachers and students on this trip, but there are some things that need our immediate attention,” Tester says. “We want to address the needs of Indian students from early childhood development to post secondary education, so it's important that we get the tribes on board, because it will improve education in Indian Country in a positive way.”

The new bill features an improved application process for tribes in applying for grants and funding; more resources for native language immersion programs; and qualified teacher recruitment and retention for poor and remote school districts that often struggle with high turnover rates.

“Right now there are approximately half a dozen streams of funding with very complicated and often redundant application requirements,” Tester says. “Our goal is to reduce this to a single-source application to make it a smoother process so the tribes can more easily apply for and obtain funding to put to the best use for students in their own communities.”

A former educator himself, Tester also acknowledges studies that show native language immersion learners score higher on achievement tests than their single-language counterparts.

“Not only does language immersion help maintain the integrity of the tribes,” he says, “but by integrating it into their educational curricula from early childhood education on will bolster their achievement scores, which is a win-win for the tribes in terms of both cultural and educational outcomes.”

Finally, one of the primary objectives of this legislation will be improved efforts to recruit and retain qualified teachers to remote and low income school districts in Indian Country where turnover rates can be as high as 70 percent.

“It's hard to keep qualified teachers in towns where they can’t find a place to live,” Tester says. “Lack of decent housing is a big problem in a lot of Native communities, but we have to address the infrastructural issues in terms of retention. We need more housing and food secure environments to improve the retention rates of our teachers. These communities need help in being able to draw the best teachers to some of the more remote areas.”

David Bean, a tribal council member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Washington State, says Tester’s recent visit to his tribe’s reservation was welcomed.

“We tell Congress year after year that the funding for our schools is inadequate and they never listen,” Bean says. “So it speaks volumes about [Tester’s] commitment to education. We appreciate his efforts to take the time to visit and see first-hand our schools and all of the wonderful things that we’re doing, but also the unmet needs that we have.”

The Puyallup Tribe operates the Chief Leschi Schools, one of the largest Bureau of Indian Education schools in the country. The school serves almost 900 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade from over 60 tribes across the nation.

Bean says that although the school has had some wonderful achievements, overcrowding and underfunding are still major issues that impact the tribe’s ability to provide the best education possible.

“I myself am a product of Chief Leschi,” says Bean. “And every single morning, we do the same [tribal] songs and dances to begin our school day that we did in the 1970s. But we are facing a serious overcrowding situation in a few years because 55 percent of our elementary population will be moving into middle and high school. We need to get ahead of that because we’re already busting at the seams.”

Improving Healthcare at IHS

One of the other major points of interest on Tester’s travel schedule were a number of Indian Health Service facilities across the northern United States where he toured numerous facilities and spoke to hospital directors, doctors, administrators and staff to get a sense of the challenges many IHS facilities face on a day-to-day basis in providing treatment for millions of tribal members.

Tester was impressed with the facilities in Bemidji, Minnesota, as well as the Puyallup’s Tribal Health Authority urban Indian clinic in Tacoma, Washington. But, like most Indian clinics and hospitals, both tribes are confronted with ever-growing client lists and shrinking federal dollars.

“Although we did not see any facilities that were an embarrassment, what we did notice is that many were in dire need of more doctors and nurses,” says Tester. “In my home state of Montana, there are some pretty innovative facilities and we hope to take some of those models and utilize those across the country.”

The Puyallup, for example, have only 4,800 tribal members, according to Bean, but their clinic serves over 25,000 tribal members from all over the country because Seattle was one of the major cities in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs launched its “Relocation” program in the 1950s and 60s.

“We have a full-service clinic, but it’s still only a clinic. And we’re overloaded,” says Bean. “We have been providing tribal funding to cover the shortfall from the government, but this doesn’t relieve the government of its duties and obligations for which our grandparents and great-grandparents negotiated in giving up our lands. This is their trust responsibility and one of the most basic needs of our people. So we are hoping that Senator Tester can convince his colleagues to help fund this appropriation for all Indian health services.”

One of the big hurdles in funding Indian Health Service, says Tester, is the refusal by many states with tribal members to expand Medicaid, which would be an enormous source of funding for the tribes’ ability to provide effective healthcare to their patients.

“The more we can get folks to understand that this is a benefit, it would be helpful because it is third party billing that would supplemental funding for healthcare,” he says.

Tribal Environmental Issues

Across the country, tribes are facing unprecedented environmental assaults on their lands that impact not only their access to fresh water, but also numerous threats to the wildlife, crops and other natural resources upon which they depend for survival.

Tester and his staff visited numerous sites in Indian Country that are both endangered, as well as a few success stories. Chief among his concerns is the proposed iron mine near the headwaters of the Bad River in northern Wisconsin, which is near the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation.

RELATED: Bad River Band Establishes Legal Defense Fund to Stop Proposed Iron Ore Mine

“The tribes are very concerned about this mine and rightfully so,” says Tester. “Typically, the mining companies have come in and destroyed the land and the water and left the tribes to deal with the fallout.”

Tester says he wants to build a strong coalition between the tribes, the local communities and the federal government to improve water quality, hunting, fishing and the sustainable harvests, including wild rice, which are critical to the tribes survival and way of life.

“I hope he will,” says environmental activist and writer Winona LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, whose rice crops are at risk because of mining activity in the region. “Wild rice is the essence of who we are. It is our food for all our ceremonies and for our families. But wild rice does not survive sulphuric acid after 40 years of studies. Nothing has changed that.”

LaDuke says the newly proposed mine, as well as the old mines in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, have left a lasting negative impact on the environment. “The main tests on this all have been in Minnesota where the iron range left a lot of acid.”

For Tester, the messages and the images from the tribes during his time on the road made a distinct impression.

“There was not one stop where we didn’t learn something, not one stop that was a waste of time,” he says. “I get around to the tribes in Montana, but this was an opportunity to get among the northern tier states and shape an agenda for the next Congress and for the lame duck session. There is a lot to be done.”