Written by Vicki Viall
The Department of Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, has been on a whirlwind tour. Just this morning, Sunday, March 16, she and her entourage were in Glacier National Park. Then they flew to Poplar and Fort Peck this afternoon. She was accompanied by Montana Senator Jon Tester. They were greeted in the Fort Peck Tribal Chamber by Chairman Rusty Stafne and the tribal council. After a few moments to allow Secretary Jewell and Sen. Tester to circle the room and greet those present, Chairman Stafne called the informal council gathering to order.
He introduce Dr. Ken Ryan who gave a prayer in Assiniboine. Dr. Ryan then translated his prayer into English.
Stafne then welcomed Secretary Jewell, Sen. Tester and everyone else to the meeting. He told Secretary Jewell that she was the first cabinet member to every stop in Poplar or Fort Peck Reservation.
Secretary Jewell responded that she was shocked to learn she was the first cabinet member to visit and was honored to be there. She stated that it is her priority to remind her fellow cabinet members that they must honor their promises and to commit their departments to help the reservations thrive.
She jokingly pointed out to Secretary of State John Kerry that he only has to deal with 100-something countries. She is responsible for over 500 Indian Nations. She noted that Sen. Tester is a huge proponent of the Native American population and that she appreciated is assistance with Indian Affairs.
She was asked why the Indians had not been exempted from sequestration. She replied that the budget it tight across the board for everyone. Though many reasons for exempting them existed, the elected officials denied their exemption.
She introduced her new Assistant Secretary, Larry Roberts. She explained that he is Native American and enrolled with his own tribe. Additionally, she explained that Larry had completed school and is now a lawyer thanks to monies from the Indian owned casinos on his reservation. Roberts will be overseeing Indian Affairs.
Chairman Stafne acknowledged that he knew the Secretary and Senator were on a very tight schedule but wanted to introduce the members of the council -- which he did -- and then asked if he could afford each to detail what their council committees do.
Councilwoman Roxanne Gourneau explained the gap in the education on the Reservation versus education off the Reservation and asked for assistance in closing that gap. She further stated that they are in need of all the funding they can get for education and to combat illiteracy and drugs which are in plentiful supply on the Reservation. In her words, she “doesn’t just want to start on war on them; she wants to end it.”
Another pointed out that they just want Washington to know that they are alive and well and still speaking thier native language and observing their traditions and ceremonies. It was stated that they don’t believe that Washington knows what they need. It was pointed out more than once that the Indians are called sovereign but they are, in fact, not. If they were truly sovereign, they would be able to make decisions about their own destinies. And they aren’t. They think they need to become more like lobbies.
Emphasizing the problems with education, it was brought to Secretary Jewell’s attention that two of the area schools are in danger of closing their doors due to lack of funds. The new detention center was also held up as an example of the same problem. The building is complete and ready to be operational but the funds to hire and train a sufficient staff is not available.
Councilwoman Marva Firemoon shared the truth “that land is very sacred to the Native Americans. We need help.” She continued with “we want our people to work and stand on their own.”
Secretary Jewell, even though running terribly behind schedule, stated she wanted to take the time to address all the issues that had been shared with her. She noted that education is not handled by her department but that she will hand deliver what she had received with the appropriate department. She wanted to underscore that she understands and feels the tribe’s pain. She reiterated that the budge is really, really tight and that there will be lots of unmet needs. She touched on Bakken and the increase in crime and drugs and stated that she would also look into increasing law enforcement.
And then the entourage departed for the 20 minute trip to the Assiniboine/Sioux Water Treatment Plant located just outside of Wolf Point. There Secretary Jewell and Senator Tester were greeted by the staff of the facility and even presented with Star Quilts. After which, they and all in attendance, were treated to a tour of the facility.
Though Secretary Jewell spent time working for Mobil Oil, she also spent 20 plus years in banking. From there she became a member of the board for REI, eventually moving up to Chief Operating Officer and finally, Chief Executive Officer. And finally, her current position.
Therefore, the engineer in her immensely enjoyed the tour. We asked her what she, as an engineer thought of the facility. She pointed out that technology has changed greatly since she practiced as an engineer but then went on to point out portions of the facility she was impressed by and why.
She stated that the tribe had spent the money well and exactly as intended up to and including the fact that the engineer for the plant is Native American. She was asked what she thought of Montana. She shared what some of us had already learned via Facebook -- that she had spent the morning in Glacier National Park and how much she enjoyed it.
Finally she was asked what she thought of the idea of reintroducing bison on the reservation. She and Sen. Tester both stated they were for it as long as it is done in such a manner that it is compatible with the area. For example, she doesn’t want to see any problems between the bison and other livestock or between the bisons and farmers.
In a private discussion with Sen. Tester, we thanked him again for visiting Wolf Point Veterans earlier in the month and thanked him for all the work he does in Washington and in Montana on behalf of veterans. To reassure those in attendance for his Wolf Point visit, he stated that he is still working on correcting the lack of medical care in Glasgow. Several solutions and options are being looked at and discussed.
With that, and being far behind schedule, the entourage departed as they will be in Idaho tonight and tomorrow.