HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Bills that sought to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day were tabled in committee. Funding for two state positions dedicated to Native American communities were cut. The only Native American member of Montana’s human rights commission wasn’t retained.
This year’s state legislative session in Montana — where Republicans hold at least a two-thirds majority in both Houses and have a GOP governor for the first time in 16 years — has triggered concerns from some Native Americans and their allies who fear they are losing influence and representation.
Democratic Sen. Susan Webber of Browning said she sees discrimination and racism in the actions.
“Legislators, including the Indian Caucus, make every attempt to be civil. However, it’s hard when the Indian people are attacked over and over, day after day,” she said.
Republicans pushed back against any suggestion of discrimination.
“The insinuation that the Legislature is using legislation to discriminate against Native Americans, including Senate GOP members’ own constituents and a member of the Senate Republican caucus, is absurd,” Kyle Schmauch, spokesperson for Senate Republicans, said in an email.
Dylan Klapmeier, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said any suggestion that there is legislation aimed at discrimination “is unbelievable and has no basis in fact.”
Native American lawmakers are also concerned about several election-related bills that members of the American Indian Caucus argue will make it more difficult for Native Americans, low-income residents, disabled people and rural Montanans to vote.
Montana is among at least 43 states considering legislation aimed at restricting voter access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The effort was prompted by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud.
The concerns in Montana come during a historic moment for Native American representation in government as U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico gets ready to become the first Native American to lead a U.S. Cabinet agency as Interior secretary. Descriptions of her as “radical” by white, male Republicans has raised questions about whether she is being treated differently because she is a Native American woman.
“It’s been a nightmare for Indian Country and Montana Indians,” said Sen. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat from Missoula and one of 11 Native Americans in the Montana Legislature, all but two of whom are Democrats. “An anti-Indian world still exists. People wait for the right times to jump out and make their moves.”
There are 12 tribal nations in Montana with a population of nearly 67,000 in 2019, just over 6% of the state’s total population of 1.07 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s figures.
There have been some wins for Native American causes this session.
A House committee on Feb. 26 looked favorably on a bill by Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency to make it easier for Native Americans to vote by requiring satellite elections offices and ballot drop boxes on reservations to reduce travel time for tribal members to access voting services.
Lawmakers also voted unanimously to continue the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons task force, a victory that was realized in the 2019 session. Republican Sen. Jason Small of Busby, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, sponsored the legislation to create and continue the task force.
Still, the losses are adding up.
A budget committee cut funding for the American Indian health director and the tribal relations manager within the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Gov. Greg Gianforte believes those proposed cuts “are the wrong course of action,” and will work to restore the funding, Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for the governor, said on March 1. Gianforte also opposed a $500,000 cut to a program to help preserve tribal languages. The funding was restored.
Gianforte declined to support former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s nomination of Margarett Campbell to the Human Rights Commission, leaving the commission without Native American representation for the first time in at least 16 years.
Campbell was nominated in 2019, after the Legislature adjourned, so she had not yet been confirmed by the state Senate. Gianforte asked lawmakers to reject her nomination and instead confirm Helena attorney Rick Bartos.
“I just think that is very, very important that the minority population of Montana is represented on all boards and commissions,” Campbell said.
Campbell is chief diversity officer at Montana State University-Northern in Havre, has 38 years of experience in higher education and is a former majority leader in the Montana House.
Morigeau called Campbell’s removal a travesty. “Having Native representation on the Human Rights Commission makes sense when you look at the history of discrimination in the state and country,” he said.
Bartos also has experience in education and was bureau chief of Adult Protective Services within the health department. As an attorney, he has advocated for the rights of disabled students in public schools, the governor’s office said.
“The governor has identified well-qualified Montanans to serve on our state’s boards and commissions who can help lead Montana’s comeback and who share his positive vision for Montana’s future,” Stroyke said when asked about the governor not supporting Campbell’s nomination.
With a stated goal of preventing voter fraud, Republican lawmakers are moving forward with a series of bills that Native American lawmakers say will result in making it more difficult for tribal members living on reservations to vote.
One would place restrictions on organizations that collect absentee ballots, similar to a voter-passed referendum that has already been declared unconstitutional by a state judge because it places a higher burden on voting rights for Native American who can live many miles from polling places and may not have access to a reliable vehicle and money for gas.
Andy Werk Jr., president of the Fort Belknap tribe in northern Montana, called the bill “intentional discrimination” during a recent meeting of the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Another bill that has passed the House would end same-day voter registration, requiring registrations be completed by noon on the Monday before Election Day.
Supporters say ending same-day registration will reduce voting lines and result in less work for clerks on Election Day.
But the change would mean two trips to elections offices for new voters and will hurt tribes the most, Webber said.
Bills seeking to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day did not make it out of committee even though no one testified against them. Supporters argued that celebrating Columbus Day ignores the rape, murder and genocide endured by Indigenous people during the European settlement of North America.
“I don’t agree that there was enough evidence that Christopher Columbus was intentionally as horrible as everybody said he was,” said Republican Sen. Gordon Vance of Belgrade, “but I do feel the fact that American Indian Heritage Day is the fourth Friday in September does honor the Native Americans.”
This story has been updated to correct that there are 11 Native Americans in the Legislature, not 10, and all but two of whom are Democrats, not all but one.