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Montana American Indian lawmakers praise 'cohesive' 2023 caucus

Montana’s American Indian Caucus passed some of their top priorities during the 2023 legislative session. Caucus members say that work took a lot of explaining about the issues their communities face.

Montana’s American Indian Caucus is one of the legislature’s few bipartisan caucuses.

Caucus chair Republican Sen. Jason Small, from Busby, said the 2023 group was the most cohesive he’s seen in his eight years in the Senate.

“As a group, we finally started recognizing the fact that when you have a dozen people, you can change the outcome of some situations,” Small said.

Montana American Indian Caucus chair Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, measures up the stack of legislation that built up on his desk during the 2023 Legislative Session. Small says he's proud of the policy he and the caucus advanced during a session with an unprecedented number of bills.
Ellis Juhlin
Montana American Indian Caucus chair Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, measures up the stack of legislation that built up on his desk during the 2023 Legislative Session. Small says he's proud of the policy he and the caucus advanced during a session with an unprecedented number of bills.

Small and several caucus members said some of their greatest success came not from the policy they passed, but the policy they prevented.

The first policy the caucus pointed to was a draft bill introduced by Kalispell Republican Sen. Keith Regier. It would have asked the U.S. Congress to study alternatives to the reservation system.

Caucus members saw it as a slippery slope that could end up abolishing the system and were concerned they had not been consulted about it. Lance Four Star worked as the director of the caucus this session.

“So, with communications, we needed to try to figure out a counter to the anti Montana American Indian caucus sentiment here,” Four Star said.

Small and Four Star mobilized the caucus’ opposition to the bill. After conversations with caucus members, Regier decided to not introduce the legislation.

Four Star said the caucus’ work fighting legislation took away from time the caucus could have spent lobbying for bills they supported.

The caucus pushed back against bills that could have infringed on tribal sovereignty by establishing a right to hunt in the Constitution, or changed representation on the interim State-Tribal Relations Committee to reduce the number of native lawmakers.

“Instead of focusing on the bills that we needed to focus on in order to get these bills passed, we had to start focusing on bills that were degrading our stance as a caucus,Four Star said.

Small said even bills that would have had a small relative impact, like one to rename a highway after the late Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person, were a fight. It passed but only after some uncommon legislative maneuvering.

“Even that road naming bill, I mean, we're trying to name a pile of tar and rocks after a guy and that even goes down in flames,” Small said.

A big loss for the caucus was the rejection of a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, an idea that has failed in the Montana Legislature for nearly a decade.

Democratic Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, from Box Elder, has been in the Legislature since 2003 and said he’s in constant conversations trying to get non-native lawmakers to understand his community.

“It’s sad that in Indian country - like the issues that I push - are issues that those guys who live in white picket fences, square one mile block where they live in, they don't know my issues, but yet they're here. They're voting against the issue,” Windy Boy said.

Despite the challenges, Montana’s American Indian Caucus was successful in passing several of their priority bills.

Democratic Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, from Browning, carried two of those pieces of legislation. One renews funding for Montana’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force and another creates a grant program to train missing persons response teams across the state.

“This is what it means to be fighting for our women and children and our loved and missing people,” Running Wolf said.

The caucus also successfully advanced the Montana Indian Child Welfare Act to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk, where it’s currently awaiting action.

It guides the removal and placement of Native American children in cases of adoption and foster care to protect their cultural heritage.

The bill was supported by Montana’s tribes and the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, but faced repeated challenges from non-native lawmakers who objected to a child protection policy that was specific to Native Americans.

Looking back on the session’s 87 days, Small said he’s proud of keeping the group together and advancing the policies they did, despite adversity.

“I think it was really successful as far as the group sticking together. Which is funny, right? Because this year, we had terrible bills that we had to come up against,” Small said.

The Montana American Indian Caucus will look different in the next scheduled legislative session in 2025 when several of their most prominent members will leave. Windy Boy, Small and the Crow Agency Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy will all be termed out of office.

Small, who is the only active Republican who attends caucus meetings, has said he won’t run for the House. But he hopes the unity shown this year will carry on in future sessions.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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