This West Is OUR West

Montana Democrat leaders listen to tribal concerns

Members of Montana Democrat’s Legislative Leaders stopped at the Flathead Reservation on their statewide tour to share their platform for the 2019 legislature. Candidates included (L-R) HD 93 representative John Fleming who said he is retiring, HD 79 representative Jenny Eck, SD 37 representative Jon Sesso, Clerk of Supreme Court Rex Renk, and HD 95 representative Shane Morigeau.


Alyssa Kelly

June 21, 2018

As the mid-term elections near, politicians and law-makers bend an ear to Indian County

PABLO – Members of Montana Democrat’s Legislative Leaders group stopped at the Flathead Reservation on its campaign tour across the state. “Our mission is to listen and find out what key issues we should be working on,” Senate District 37 Representative John Sesso said. “Rather than get caught up in our world and think we know.”

The group made up of state house and senate representatives met with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council to discuss their platform for the 2019 legislature. “We’re talking to people all across the state to hear how you want us to vote and represent you,” House District 79 Representative Jenny Eck said.

Montana has 150 legislative districts, 50 of which are made up of state senate representatives, and 100 of which are made up of state house of representatives. In November 2018, a general election will be held for all senate and house seats.

According to Ballotpedia, both the senate and house representatives “work alongside the governor of Montana to create laws and establish a state budget.” They are also responsible for “passing bills on public policy matters, setting levels for state spending, raising and lowering taxes, and voting to uphold or override gubernatorial vetoes.”


A $227 million shortfall was revealed in Montana’s 2017 budget and a special legislative session was called to address the issue, which resulted in $70 million being cut from Montana’s Department of Health and Human Resources. The cut impacted individuals receiving state health services including Medicaid and case management.

Sesso said state representatives plan to collect data on the impact of the budget cut for state healthcare recipients to present in the 2019 legislative session. He also said they were looking into other areas for taxation. “We’ve discussed a tobacco tax to offset some of those costs,” he said.

Arlee Tribal Council representative Troy Felsman suggested state representatives address President Donald Trump’s proposal to change the status of Native Americans from “nation” to “race” in the administration’s Indian Health Service program, which fulfills the United State’s treaty obligation with tribes. “This could have an impact across the board,” Felsman said. “This impacts our sovereignty as a people.”

House District 95 Representative Shane Morigeau said that a letter of support was already in the works. “I brought this issue to the group’s attention and we all agreed to write a letter of support for tribes,” he said. “We understand how critical this issue is and we’ve all agreed it needs to be addressed.”


Felsman suggested that state representatives seek initiatives to improve Montana’s gaming laws. “In Montana, tribes have the least advantages in state gaming than any other state in the country,” he said. “We are very limited in what we are able to do here. Unlike other states, tribes here do not benefit from opportunities like sports betting or card tables. All we’re asking for is fairness and consideration on expanding gaming.”

In Montana, jackpots are limited to $800. Because the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal casinos do not have a “gaming compact” in place with the state and operate on sovereign tribal land, they are regulated under the Tribal Gaming Commission and can legally offer million dollar progressive machines as well as penny machines.

Felsman said it is difficult for the state to enforce its law of $800 jackpot limits. “I have had people come to me with non-tribal businesses advertising over $800 jackpots in the state,” he said “One of the largest casino chain business owners in the state, the president of Town Pump, serves on Montana’s Gaming Advisory Council. Do we expect him to report his own businesses? At this point, enforcement in this state is a joke.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools

Arlee Representative Shelly Fyant said she serves on the Two Eagle River School Board. Fyant said the state has two schools managed under the Bureau of Indian Affairs: Two Eagle River School and the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Schools. “These schools serve tribal students, and they are considered among the highest risk,” she said. “Right now, these schools receive one-third of state funding provided to public schools.”

In the process of advocating for rising state funding for BIA schools, Fyant said she is often met with the idea that charter schools, church schools, and private schools could also seek more funding from the state if support was provided to BIA schools. “The difference between BIA schools and those other schools is they receive tuition or private funding,” she said. “We’re talking about the poorest of the poor when it comes to BIA schools.”

Tribal Language

Montana developed the Montana Indian Language Program, which provides tribes with grant funding to support tribal language revitalization initiatives. “We want to thank the state’s continued commitment to tribal languages,” Felsman said. “We have a lot more younger people speaking the language and I don’t want to understate the dire state our languages are in. We have come far but we still have a long way to go.”

Sesso said he has been in support of state initiatives to support tribal languages. “Montana has a rich tribal history and culture and it’s so important that it’s passed on to future generations,” he said. “Jonathan Windy Boy was a huge advocate in making sure that the state understood the importance of tribal languages receiving support so that one day it would be used beyond ceremonial use.”

Sesso ended the meeting discussing the significance of maintaining government-to-government relations. “I think it’s important we understand where tribes stand,” he said. “Philosophically, all political relationships in this country were created after we signed the treaties. We appreciate the support our democratic party has received from tribes.”