Written by John Plestina
Rep. Steve Daines (right) met with Fort Peck Tribes chairman A.T. Stafne during a recent visit to the area. (Photos by John Plestina)
Rep. Steve Daines (right) meets with Fort Peck Community College president Haven Gourneau.
The resounding message members of the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board sent to Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., during a visit to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes offices in Poplar Friday, May 16, was that the needs of Native Americans are not heard in Washington.
Daines was the first Republican to visit the Tribal Executive Board in many years.
In response to comments that Indian Country has little voice in Congress, Daines said there are few Native Americans that have been elected to Congress. Two, he said, are from Oklahoma.
“That’s not enough of a voice for Indian Country in Washington,” Daines said.
Board member Garrett Big Leggins wanted to know what Daines would do to achieve the goals of the tribes.
“Why can’t the Republicans get the message. The Democrats are hearing it,” Big Leggins said.
Daines, who currently holds Montana’s one at-large congressional seat, said he didn’t disagree and that he expressed the same to the Republican leadership in Washington.
He responded to a question about him breaking with party lines voting along with Democrats in support of the Senate-passed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act supporting tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians for prosecutorial powers in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. He said his position was not popular with some Republicans in the House.
Several board members cited drug problems, especially methamphetamine addiction, as a major problem with young people on the reservation.
“Our people die every week because we don’t have the money to send them off to get the treatment they need,” board member Edward Bauer said.
“Crime on this reservation has increased over 200 percent in the past two years just because of the Bakken (Oilfield),” Rick Kirn, chairman of the Law and Justice Committee, said.
“It’s a slap in the face to us. Our issues are as important as other people’s issues,” he said.
Daines said representatives of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies attended a meeting with him in Sidney Wednesday, May 14, and told him crime of all kinds has increased dramatically with the oil boom in the Sidney area.
Daines cited a 221 percent increase in criminal activity in eastern Montana in the past two years that includes human trafficking and a sharp increase in the number of registered sex offenders, a presence of organized criminal activity and two major methamphetamine busts in 2013.
An agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency told Daines in Sidney that methamphetamine was coming into eastern Montana from organized crime sources, some connected to Mexican drug cartels.
“We don’t have any oil activity. All we are experiencing is the collateral damage,” Kirn said.
“You aren’t seeing the fruit of the Bakken. You are seeing the collateral damage; the spill-over from that,” Daines said.
Kirn also asked Daines to look at problems with jurisdictional issues between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement agencies.
Board member Roxanne Gourneau delivered a passionate message to Daines.
She asked him if he knew what it would be like to be labeled a ward (of the government).
“We’re human beings. Give us the respect and the dignity,” she said.
Gourneau said the people of the Fort Peck Reservation have molded themselves in their culture.
“We only take what we need. We are not wasteful people,” she said.
Gourneau talked about violence in schools across the nation.
“We need to have a standard of education in Montana for all children, and that’s not happening,” she said.
Gourneau cited that the Brockton and Frazer schools have not benefited from oil industry generated Concentric Circle funding comes has helped other schools in eastern Montana and that both schools are struggling to remain open.
“They are ready to shut their doors and no one seems to care,” Gourneau said.
Several school districts in eastern Montana, including some in Roosevelt County, receive Concentric Circle money, where a school district receives more than 130 percent in oil and gas revenue. The funds spill over into the neighboring districts. That funding has not benefited Brockton and Frazer.
“If we continue on the same path, it’s a path to nowhere,” Gourneau said.
“Our education on our reservation needs to be revitalized,” she said.
Gourneau mentioned the possibility of developing a charter school on the reservation.
Daines responded that he supports the concept of charter schools in Montana.
“I think a charter school is a step forward,” he said.
There were also several comments that not enough high school students are graduating.
Bauer and several others said there are problems with the Indian Health Service (IHS).
“I don’t think anyone in Indian Country is happy with IHS and IHS funding,” Daines said.
Bauer said that while Obamacare is not popular with Republicans, the Affordable Care Act has helped a lot of people.
“I hope you keep that in mind when you go back to Washington,” he said.
Daines said it might not be an issue of not enough money spent on IHS.
“I think the dollars are not being spent very well,” he said.
Daines said IHS must be fundamentally restructured and funding should go to each tribe, rather than into a large funding pool.
Environmental issues were also raised.
Kirn said the route of the proposed Keystone Pipeline has been shifted off the Fort Peck Reservation and all tribal lands between Montana and Texas so that the developers could avoid regulations. The route that would have crossed the Fort Peck Reservation has been shifted to a site that is near Fort Peck Lake. Kirn said the reservation and its residents could have benefited economically, including job creation.
Daines cited Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently issuing an executive order stopping the importation of electricity from Montana that is produced by coal-fired power plants. In doing so, Daines said Inslee has economically damaged Montana’s power generation and mining industries, with Montana jobs at stake.
Inslee is a Democrat who has made climate change one of his key issues.
Daines introduced the board to Amanda Peterman, the tribal liaison on his staff who is an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe.