Tester, Walsh visit Crow Agency during tour of tribes

Billings Gazette

by Susan Olp

CROW AGENCY – U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh stopped in Crow Agency on Wednesday as part of their tour of Montana tribes.

Montana’s two senators met at a morning breakfast with the Crow tribal leadership. Then they stopped at Crow Agency Head Start.

They were to meet with leaders of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in the afternoon.

Head Start officials gave the two men a tour of the building that’s been in use since the 1960s and is in need of upgrades. They were shown the ancient boiler, a hand-me-down from a hospital.

The senators also joined in a round dance performed by the 160 3- to 5-year-olds and their teachers, accompanied on drums by members of Black Whistle and Chairman Darren Old Coyote.

After the dance, the two senators were each presented a colorful necktie.

Walsh, who was sworn in on Feb. 11 to replace former Sen. Max Baucus, is gathering information to aid him in his new post. He called the children the center of “our future.”

“So we need to do everything we can possibly do to encourage them to participate and stay involved,” Walsh said. “And early childhood education is very important.”

Tester recently was named chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. In his new post, he said, immediate priorities include making some technical fixes to bills, such as the Violence Against Women Act, and moving them along.

“My goal is to get a majority of the people on the committee to work together, get a majority of votes to get some of these issues out and get them to the floor,” he said.

Another goal is to determine the priorities of tribal nations throughout the United States. That’s the impetus behind his tour.

“I started with the Montana tribes because I’m a Montanan,” Tester said. But we’ll be talking to all of the tribes around the country about what their priorities are.”

A former teacher, and from a family of teachers, Tester talked about the critical need for education to boost a person’s chance to better himself economically.

“And early childhood education is a no-brainer,” he said. “It pays for itself over and over again.”

Tester, who also recently co-sponsored a bill regarding language immersion, said that’s another critical element to education for all of the tribes.

“As part of Native American culture that they be connected to the past to be able to move into the future,” he said. “I think language is one of those ways that you can stay connected to your culture. It’s very important.”

Tester said he recognized issues such as water, education, police protection, housing and health care all are issues of concern to the tribal nations. The tension remains figuring out how to tackle the nation’s deficit while also meeting the government’s trust responsibility to the tribes.

In talking about how to meet the many needs of the tribes, Tester invoked the name of former tribal Chairman Carl Venne.

“The bottom line is you’ve got to empower tribes, then things are going to happen,” he said. “That’s what Carl Venne said seven or eight years ago when I came down here, and that’s what I believe. Empower the tribes and let them utilize their sovereignty to find solutions.”

Tester said he’s already been in conversations with the Obama administration to boost funding for some of the chronically underfunded programs in Indian Country. An economy that’s continuing to turn around will make that more possible, he said.

“We’ll do our best to advocate for what we know, based on fact, and go from there,” Tester said.

One of the issues Tester and Walsh spoke to tribal leaders about is coal development. The tribe sees coal and its export to Asia as a major driver for its economy.

Debate continues over development of a terminal in Washington state to export the coal. Tribes in Montana and outside it come down on both sides of the issue, and Tester said that adds difficulty to the equation.

“The bottom line is I cannot go and tell another tribe we’re going to respect Crow sovereignty but we’re not going to respect their sovereignty,” he said.

Tester said his goal is to make sure the decision process on the terminal be accurate, fair and timely.

Walsh said he would do all that he could for the tribe “because we know how important natural resource development is for them.”

But he stressed the need to make sure natural resource development is done right. Walsh, born and raised in Butte, said no one wants another Berkeley Pit in their backyard.

“People don’t come to Montana to see the Berkeley Pit, so we need to make sure that when we are developing our natural resources, we do it responsibly,” he said.