Republican Sen. Keith Regier on Monday said he will not introduce a joint draft resolution that urged Congress “to investigate alternatives to the American Indian reservation system.”
Regier said in every legislative session, there are bills or resolutions that he drafts and decides not to introduce. Regier is a veteran lawmaker who has served in the state Senate since 2017 and spent four terms in the House before that. He told The Associated Press that the resolution was written by Mark Agather, a retired businessman who is involved in conservative politics in Kalispell near the Flathead Reservation.
“I’ve decided not to introduce this (draft resolution) after further discussions with my constituents who requested it, and I also had a productive conversation with Sen. Shane Morigeau about it,” Regier told Lee Montana newspapers on Monday.
Morigeau is a Missoula Democrat and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who sharply rebuked the bill when draft language became available. Morigeau said his philosophy has always been to “kill people with kindness.” He shared with Regier his perspective on the draft.
“I still think there’s a lot for people to learn and understand when it comes to the dynamics of Indians in Montana and the reservations,” Morigeau said. “There were a lot of things in that resolution that were misguided and focused on stereotypes.”
Morigeau said through assimilation, termination and other harmful U.S. policies, people have absorbed the idea that “Indian people are lesser.” Morigeau said those misconceptions have inspired him to propose a bill that would expand Indian Education for All to apply not just to Montana public school students, but to lawmakers as well.
“Our country has created this value system,” he said. “And it’s a heavy lift to undo.”
Regier’s draft resolution gained national media attention and was condemned by members of the American Indian Caucus, who called the draft an “attack.”
Several tribes also criticized the resolution. The Fort Belknap Indian Community on Monday said the tribes “vehemently oppose” the resolution, which they said included factual errors.
The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana said the tribe “was incredibly disturbed” by the resolution. The tribe added that the draft furthered misconceptions and ignored the law.
Legal experts said that when it comes to legislating tribes, the state has very little authority.
Kekek Stark, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, is an assistant professor of law at the University of Montana. He said the resolution called for Congress to investigate reservations “because the state doesn’t really have the authority to do anything beyond that.”
Stark said even if the resolution was implemented and alternatives to reservations were developed and imposed, the state would face consequences. If tribes “were no more,” he explained, the state would assume authority for services in Indigenous communities and the corresponding cost. He also explained that if reservations dissolved, land would not be open for settlement. Rather, tribes would still own that land.
“It’s not going to be like the 1880s again,” he said. “If you actually (abolished reservations), it would have more dire consequences on the state and its budget and its obligations. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. … What are you really asking for here?”
The draft resolution asserted that reservations “produced the negative effects of drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, welfare dependence, poverty and substandard educational achievements, resulting in the lack of opportunity for their future well-being and happiness.”
Stark said people may look down on reservations, regarding them as “concentration camps or jails,” rather than respecting tribes as sovereign governments. He added that when people have misinformed views of reservations and those who live there, principles of self-governance and sovereignty get overlooked.
“When you think of economic development, self-determination, or government, you’re treating (reservations) differently if you’re thinking of (them) as a prison,” he said.
Kristin Ruppel, an associate professor at Montana State University who has taught courses in federal Indian law, agreed. She said that while there are issues within reservations that could be changed to enhance people’s lives, it’s critical that people doing that work include Native communities in their efforts.
She said, for example, that quantitative data influences legal structures and can be flawed. People may quantify, for example, reservation residents’ income, or years of education, but, Ruppel said, they often aren’t asking questions like, how many people are speaking their Native language?
“They aren’t asking questions that are actually of deep, deep significance for Native people themselves,” she said. “This doesn’t mean that certain things don’t need to change, but that change needs to be Indigenous-led.”
Though Regier said he will not introduce the resolution, Stark said even the draft can have harmful consequences.
The draft, according to Stark, “creates animosity” and hurts relationships among the state and tribes.
“Furthering this type of policy diminishes (cooperation) because it (creates) that ‘us against them’ mentality versus ‘Let’s work together to advance our goals,’” he said.
Morigeau said the state has an obligation to enhance the quality of life for all Montanans, including Indigenous people.
“We can work together,” he said. “When Indian communities do better, Montana does better. We are woven together.”
Regier said the resolution “was certainly interpreted by some of the press and the public in a way that wasn’t intended.”
There will be a hearing for another resolution urging Congress to fully fund law enforcement in Indian Country at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.
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