Interview: How Jon Tester’s Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Is Different

by Rob Capriccioso

In comparison to predecessors who have led the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Jon Tester (D-Montana) is a different creature. He’s not too prickly, nor harsh with staff; he’s not seen as overly idealistic, nor super controlled. And he doesn’t appear to have a passing interest in Indian issues, either; in other words, he’s not intent on leaving them behind when he finds a bigger fish to focus on.

While he’s been in the Senate since 2007, he’s still a farmer. Before that, he was a music teacher, and he has a Bachelor of Science in music, too. His wife: also a farmer. He’s visited the reservations in his state. He knows why the Indian vote matters, especially now as the Senate – part of a currently dysfunctional Congress, he laments – hangs in the balance.

Visiting him in the Hart Senate Office Building, it’s clear that he is a comfortable, candid, common-sense man who is focused on Indian stuff because he cares about it, and he wants to get it right. In person, he seems nicer, more jolly, than one gets a sense during committee hearings. He seems good, normal, real-a tribal ally who has a chance to show real power in this domain for years to come if he so chooses and if the voters in his conservative state continue to keep him in office.

He has been in the Senate for a rather short time to already be leading a committee. But it was his destiny after senior Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus retired to become an ambassador to China, and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) decided to move on at the beginning of this year to chair the Small Business Committee.

Cantwell has been criticized for not moving as much critical legislation as Indian country would have liked during her year holding the gavel, and Tester knows the score there. It’s one reason why he’s already passed 15 pieces of legislation through the committee on housing, education, water rights, and a sure-to-be complicated legislative fix to the 2009 Supreme Court Carcieri decision that limited the Department of the Interior’s ability to take lands into trust for tribes. With four hearings scheduled for July alone on some touchy subjects, including gaming and the Cobell settlement, at a time when many of his colleagues are prepping for summer break, perhaps his biggest challenge will be to not flood the engine.

On a late-June humid day in Washington, he wore a white dress shirt, top buttons unbuttoned, no tie, no suit coat. Famous crew cut front and center. Simple desk. No ornate decorations on the walls.

“Welcome,” he said, first looking at the reporter’s colorful tie, lamenting that he’s been instructed to wear toned down ties when he appears on television. “That’s a tie I’d like to wear on TV.”

And, with that, an interview began, touching on a range of pressing issues Tester says he wants to accomplish alongside his Indian allies-making clear that he can only be successful if Indians are willing to take responsibility and lead the way on improving their own prospects.

Read Senator Tester’s full interview with Indian Country Today HERE.