The State-Tribal Relations Committee travelled to southeast Montana in September to meet with Northern Cheyenne and Crow leaders and get a hands-on look at some startup businesses, language immersion classrooms, and rehabilitation programs for women in the state’s correctional system.
The STRC kicked off its two-day tour on September 18 in Lame Deer at the Northern Cheyenne Commerce Center, which provides office space for several small businesses. The committee heard about how road construction in front of the Center dampened business during the summer season this year. The STRC will follow up on concerns about how the Montana Department of Transportation handled communication about and implementation of the project at its next meeting.
As the legislature’s liaison with tribes, the committee visited the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Headquarters in Lame Deer. Northern Cheyenne President Jace Killsback, Vice President Conrad Fisher, Councilman Sheldon King, and Tribal Administrator William Walksalong spoke with the STRC. Topics included health care, highway safety, jurisdictional issues, the impacts of power plant closures in Colstrip, enhancing tourism, and state support for teachers and students at the tribally-controlled BIE school at Busby.
The STRC traveled to Crow Agency in the afternoon to meet with Crow Chairman A.J. Not Afraid. The chairman discussed health care, unemployment, the reentry of incarcerated tribal members into communities, coal production, and an influx of international groups interested in natural resource development on the Crow Reservation.
The STRC visited Crow Agency Elementary, observing students enrolled in the school’s language immersion classrooms. Principal Jason Cummins talked about how students in those classrooms have fewer behavior problems, partly because they better understand classroom instructions spoken in Crow. Cummins also said those students are testing higher on school assessments than students in English-only classrooms.
This interim, the STRC is studying ways to improve Indian student achievement. At an evening panel discussion at Little Big Horn College, staff from the Office of Public Instruction presented recent achievement data to the committee. Students classified as English Learners, those who have another language of influence spoken at home, struggle the most on statewide assessment tests.
Little Big Horn College President Dr. David Yarlott and Chief Dull Knife College President Dr. Richard Littlebear talked about how tribal colleges are contributing to improved student achievement. Both spoke about the importance of culturally-relevant programs and teaching.
On September 19, the committee met in Billings, starting the day with a tour of offender rehabilitation programs at the Montana Women’s Prison, including the apparel print-screening shop and the Prison PAWS dog training program.
After the tour, the STRC participated in a re-entry simulation in which members were assigned fictional offender identities and had to complete conditions of community supervision. The Department of Corrections intended the exercise to give legislators a sense of the challenges persons on probation and parole face, including with transportation and housing.
The simulation led into the STRC’s first in-depth discussion of Senate Joint Resolution 3 (2017), by which the committee is tasked with studying ways to improve access to tribal resources for tribal members reentering the community on parole or sentenced to probation. The goal is to reduce recidivism and the overrepresentation of American Indians in the state’s correctional system.
Senate members of the STRC are Jen Gross (D-Billings), Steve Hinebauch (R-Wibaux), and Jason Small (R-Busby). Senator Lea Whitford (D-Cut Bank) recently resigned from the committee. Her replacement will be appointed by the Senate Committee on Committees.
House members of the STRC are Alan Doane (Vice Chair, R-Bloomfield), James O'Hara (R-Fort Benton), Rae Peppers (D-Lame Deer), and Jonathan Windy Boy (Chair, D-Box Elder).
The committee will next meet in Helena at the end of March.
For more information on the committee’s activities and upcoming meetings, visit the committee’s website or contact Hope Stockwell, committee staff. A full agenda and meeting materials will be posted approximately two weeks in advance of each meeting.