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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Across the country, a handful of colleges and universities have established think-tank-like policy institutes to help tribes tackle issues facing their communities.

Last week, the University of Montana joined their ranks with the newly created American Indian Governance and Policy Institute. The institute will be housed within the Payne Family Native American Center on the school’s campus.

Its mission is to provide tribes in the state with the Montana University System’s research and services for data- and evidence-informed tribal policymaking.

Heather Cahoon, Salish and Kootenai, is a professor in the university’s Native American Studies department and has been tapped to be the institute’s inaugural leader. She said she came up with the concept of the policy institute working as a state-tribal policy analyst and that it took about a year to take it from an idea to an official research institute.

Heather Cahoon, director of the University of Montana’s American Indian Governance and Policy Institute. (Photo by Tommy Martino, University of Montana)

“I realized that many tribal governments didn’t have access to the same type of policy research, analysis and related legal expertise that is provided to state and federal policymakers, and I imagined that these services could be provided to them free of cost through an entity such as AIGPI,” Cahoon said. “Thus, when the opportunity arose for me to join the Native American Studies faculty at UM, I quickly accepted and determined to build AIGPI.”

The University of Montana institute closely resembles the similarly named American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University. Cahoon said she was far along in the process and had already settled on the name when she learned of Arizona State’s operation.

Other similar institutes include the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona; the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development; the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy at George Washington University; and the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State.


However, Cahoon says there is one way the University of Montana’s institute separates itself from others.

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“As for acting as a sort of tribal legislative services division and assisting tribes with policy research and development — so all the way through to the actual drafting of tribal codes, ordinances, and intergovernmental agreements via UM’s Indian Law Clinic — I think AIGPI may be a first,” she said.

Cahoon hopes to further develop and maintain strong relationships with tribal leaders within the state, as they will help drive the institute’s research agenda.

One of those tribal leaders is Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Cree Indians. He is looking forward to working with the institute and says it will help tribes make informed decisions, as there is no “one size fits all” approach in Indian Country.

“Tribal governments are pulled in so many directions that they often don’t have the time or expertise to collect background data and research for a particular decision,” Gray said in a news release. “This data from the center will be able to provide tribes an incredibly important resource for decision-making and policy creation for all tribes — each with individual challenges and needs.”

Funding for the institute was supported by a $26,500 planning grant from the Headwaters Foundation, and the Clearwater Credit Union has provided the first $5,000 toward establishing a student scholarship fund for the institute, according to the news release. Additionally, a grant for more than $99,000 from the Montana Health Care Foundation was awarded to help with the development of a Tribal Public Policy Needs Assessment.

For the rest of the year and into 2021, Cahoon is working with tribal leaders on a needs assessment that she says will drive the American Indian Governance and Policy Institute agenda for the next decade.

“After that, I hope to begin embarking on research projects for tribes,” she said. “That’s what I’m most excited about.”

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -

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