Tester: Challenges, opportunity face Indian Country

Havre Daily News

by Tim Leeds

The new chair of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee said Thursday that Native Americans in Montana face challenges – but if governments and people work together, those challenges can be opportunities for growth.

“I would say the two major challenges out there is unemployment and health care,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont ., said during a telephone press conference from Washington. “I think both of those can be dealt with. I think there’s some modifications that need to be made while we’re respecting their sovereignty, but the bottom line is, it will happen if we all work together to make it happen.”

Tester and U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont ., stopped at several Montana Indian Reservations, including Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s, while touring the state last week.

Tester said the most obvious problem is unemployment, but that also creates a chance for growth.

“Their unemployment rate is through the roof, and so where there’s that unemployment challenge there’s an opportunity for job creation that can happen,” he said.

Federal programs need to improve, but the street goes both ways, Tester said.

“Look, the BIA, and I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again, is probably the most dysfunctional agency in the federal government and that’s saying something,” he said.

But stable governments on the reservation also are key, he added. Tester said he recently met with credit union representatives.

“They said, ‘Gosh, we would like to invest in Indian Country, tell us how we can do it,'” he said. “And their concern is, if they make that investment, there won’t be that stability there in their government.”

Evidence of the concern is ripe. Ken Blatt St. Marks, who was removed as chair of the council at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation still has not been allowed to take office after winning the election to replace him.

A string of federal indictments alleging officials, and others on and off the reservation, committed fraud and embezzlement at Rocky Boy are working their way through federal court.

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation has had a split council fighting over which group is actually the leadership of the council.

But the federal programs need to improve, Tester said, and added that he will try to have them improved as chair of Indian Affairs.

He said he had Dr. Yvette Robideaux, director of Indian Health Services, in his office Tuesday.

He said he told her, “We’ve got to step it up. We’re not cutting it here, folks. We’ve got to step it up; we’ve got to do better work.”