Build Back Better Would Invest in Tribal and Urban Indian Communities

On November 19, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Build Back Better (BBB), a plan that would help families, children, workers, and communities by strengthening essential programs like child care, housing, and education. The bill now sits with the U.S. Senate, where Senators should pass the bill to put us one step closer to making these needed investments.

The provisions summarized in this report are specific to Indian Country but are not specific to Montana. The provisions span programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Department of the Interior. These proposed investments give the federal government a chance to better honor its trust responsibility to tribal nations, which stems from treaties between the United States and tribal nations and provides federal assistance, such as health care and education, to tribal nations to ensure the success of tribal communities in perpetuity. Despite its obligation, the federal government has never fully honored its trust responsibility.[1]

While this temporary infusion of federal resources would be meaningful, there is no denying that the federal government has held back tribal nations and citizens for too long by advancing anti-Indigenous policies and by chronically failing to honor its trust and treaty obligations. It is also important to remember that much of these pots of money are divvied among hundreds of tribal nations, and in some cases, tribal governments share the appropriations with other eligible recipients, like tribal organizations. For example, tribal nations (of which 574 are federally recognized), tribal organizations, Alaska Native entities, Indian-controlled organizations serving Indigenous people, and Native Hawaiian organizations are all eligible recipients of the $50 million in funding for workforce development programming through the Department of Labor.

This report outlines the tribal-specific carveouts in BBB by department and summarizes the provisions that are shaded in gray in the below table. While this report outlines specific carveouts, tribal nations and communities would not be limited to the below funding. For example, BBB includes funding to build the research capacity of minority-serving institutions, like tribal colleges and universities. That funding is not included in this report. To learn more about each of the provisions of the bill, refer to the Build Back Better Act.

Build Back Better Includes Important Provisions for Tribal Nations and Indigenous People
Department/Program Section of BBB Total Funding
Agriculture
Grants to Land-Grant Colleges and Universities to Support Tribal Students 13001 $15 million
Commerce
Small Business Administration, Office of Native American Affairs 100202 $10 million
Education
Tribal Colleges and Universities
Institutional Aid 20025 $705.6 million
Retention and Completion Grants 20024 $37.5 million
Energy
High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program (Tribal Communities and Low- or Moderate-Income Households) 30412 $3.8 billion
Tribal Energy Loan Guarantee Program (Tribal Consultations) 30445 $200 million
Environmental Protection Agency
Water Assistance Program 30302 $6.75 million
Health and Human Services
Universal Preschool 23002 $2.5 billion
Child Care 23001 $4 billion
Grants for Native American Language Teachers and Educators 20006 $200 million
Extension of 100 Percent FMAP for Urban Indian Organizations, Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems 30741
Indian Health Service 70106
Maintenance and Improvement 70106 $945 million
Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders 70106 $123.7 million
Priority Health Care Facilities 70106 $1 billion
Small Ambulatory 70106 $40 million
Urban Indian Organizations 70106 $100 million
Epidemiology Centers 70106 $25 million
Environmental Health and Facilities Support Activities 70106 $113.3 million
Pathways to Health Careers (Tribal Nations, Tribal Organizations, Tribal Colleges and Universities) 134101 $89.1 million
Nursing Home Worker Training Grants 134201 $33.9 million
Adult Protective Services Functions and Grants Programs 134201 $25.5 million
Housing and Urban Development
Investments in Native American Communities 40011
NAHASDA, Grants, Sec. 202 40011 $277.5 million
NAHASDA, Competitive Grants for Affordable Housing, Sec. 202 40011 $277.5 million
Community Development Block Grants 40011 $200 million
Program Administration 40011 $25 million
Technical Assistance 40011 $20 million
Interior
Tribal Climate Resilience 70101
Climate Resilience and Adaptation Programs 70101 $441 million
Fish Hatcheries 70101 $19.6 million
Program Administration 70101 $9.4 million
Tribal Electrification Program 70103
Tribal Electrification Program 70103 $294 million
Program Administration 70103 $6 million
Emergency Drought Relief for Tribal Nations 70104 $25 million
Native American Consultation Resource Center 70105 $33 million
Tribal Public Safety 70107
Public Safety and Justice 70107 $490 million
Program Administration 70107 $10 million
Tribal Roads 70108
Roads and Tribal Transportation Facilities 70108 $715.4 million
Program Administration 70108 $14.6 million
Labor
Native American Programs (Workforce Development) 22009 $50 million
Other
Treatment of Tribal Nations as States with Respect to Bond Issuance 135301
New Markets Tax Credit for Tribal Statistical Areas 135302
Inclusion of Indian Areas as Difficult Development Areas for Purposes of Certain Buildings 135303
Total   $16.9 billion

 

Agriculture

Program: Grants to Land-Grant Colleges and Universities to Support Tribal Students
Appropriation: $15 million
Section of Bill: 13001

For Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, BBB would appropriate to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture $15 million for grants to land-grant colleges and universities to support tribal students through recruitment, tuition and related fees, experiential learning, and other student services. BBB would waive the matching fund requirement. The appropriation would remain available until September 30, 2031.

Commerce

Program: Small Business Administration, Office of Native American Affairs
Appropriation: $10 million
Section of Bill: 100202

For FY22, BBB would appropriate $10 million to the Small Business Administration to establish the Office of Native American Affairs to serve American Indians, Native Hawaiian Organizations and their members, and tribal nations. The funding would remain available until September 30, 2029. The Office would administer an outreach program to ensure tribal nations, organizations, and citizens have access to Administration programs, services, and resources. Services would include things like financial education related to applying for and securing credit.

Education

Program: Tribal Colleges and Universities, Institutional Aid
Appropriation: $705.6 million
Section of Bill: 20025

For each of FY22-FY26, BBB would provide tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), of which there are 37, with $141.1 million in grants.[2] To give context to this amount, if each of the 37 TCUs were to receive an equal amount of funding, they would get roughly $3.8 million per year. For each of those years, the funding would remain available until September 30, 2028. Grant funds could be used to plan, develop, undertake, and carry out activities to better serve Indigenous students. Examples of allowable activities include buying, renting, or leasing scientific or lab equipment for educational purposes; tutoring, counseling, and student service programs designed to improve academic success; and construction, maintenance, renovation, and improvement of certain facilities.

Program: Tribal Colleges and Universities, Retention and Completion Grants
Appropriation: $37.5 million
Section of Bill: 20024

For FY22, BBB would provide $37.5 million in competitive grant funding for tribal colleges and universities to use evidence-based reforms or practices to improve student outcomes. If each of the 37 TCUs were to receive an equal amount of funding, they would get roughly $1 million per year. The funding would remain available until September 30, 2030. BBB would not require tribal colleges and universities to provide matching funds.

Health and Human Services

Program: Universal Preschool
Appropriation: $2.5 billion
Section of Bill: 23002

For FY22, BBB would appropriate $2.5 billion to tribal nations and organizations to provide universal, high-quality, free, inclusive, and mixed-delivery preschool services. Funding would remain available until September 30, 2027. Activities of the program would include program administration, ongoing quality improvement of the program and providers, and outreach and enrollment support for families. Tribal nations and organizations would need to apply to receive funding.

Program: Child Care
Appropriation: $4 billion
Section of Bill: 23001

For FY22-FY24, BBB would award a total of $4 billion in grants to tribal nations and organizations to carry out a child care program, including providing high-quality, affordable child care for children age birth through 5, increasing wages for the early childhood workforce, and expanding the availability of child care. The money would remain available until September 30, 2027. The Secretary of Health and Human Services would determine eligibility criteria for children from tribal nations. Tribal nations and organizations could receive an unspecified amount of additional funding for FY25-FY27.

Program: Grants for Native American Language Teachers and Educators
Appropriation: $200 million
Section of Bill: 20006

For FY22, BBB would provide $200 million for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to award grants to eligible applicants, including tribal governments, to prepare, train, and offer professional development to tribal language teachers and early childhood educators. The purpose of the grant funding is to ensure the survival and vitality of tribal languages. The funding would remain available until September 30, 2031. BBB would not require grant recipients to provide matching funds.

Program: Extension of 100 Percent FMAP for Urban Indian Organizations and Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems
Section of Bill: 30741

BBB would extend for an additional two years the 100 percent Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) for urban Indian organizations and Native Hawaiian Health Centers that the American Rescue Plan Act first authorized. This could benefit the roughly 40 percent of American Indians in Montana who live in urban communities.[3] The FMAP is the share of costs that the federal government covers for health services provided to Medicaid-enrolled individuals. FMAP applies to most medical services.[4] Prior to ARPA, urban Indian health organizations were the only part of the Indian health-care system not eligible for 100 percent FMAP. The extension of 100 percent FMAP for urban Indian health programs does not impact Indian Health Service (IHS) and tribal funding, as FMAP is not a factor in creating the IHS budget or mandatory spending for Medicaid at IHS and tribal facilities.[5]

Program: Indian Health Service
Appropriation: $2.3 billion
Section of Bill: 70106

In total, BBB would appropriate more than $2.3 billion to the Indian Health Service (IHS). Of that:

  • Some $945 million would go toward the maintenance and improvement of IHS and tribal health facilities.
  • Roughly $124 million would go toward mental health and substance use prevention and treatment services, including facility renovation, construction, or expansion.
  • Some $1 billion would go toward projects identified through the health-care facility priority system, as outlined in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
  • An additional $40 million would go toward small ambulatory construction. The IHS Small Ambulatory Program supports tribal nations in expanding access to outpatient services.
  • Some $100 million would go toward the renovation, construction, expansion, equipping, and improvement of facilities that urban Indian organizations own or lease.
  • Another $25 million would go toward epidemiology centers.
  • Roughly $113 million would go toward IHS environmental health and facilities support activities.

The funding for all these programs would remain available until September 30, 2031. Tribal nations and organizations that receive funding under self-determination contracts would receive the funding on a one-time basis, none of which would count toward IHS support costs of those contracts.

Housing and Urban Development

Program: Investments in Native American Communities
Appropriation: $800 million
Section of Bill: 40011

In FY22, BBB would appropriate funding to a variety of housing programs in Indian Country. The following investments amount to $800 million.

  • Nearly $278 million would go toward formula grants for affordable housing activities that include the acquisition or construction of affordable housing, provision of counseling for rental or homeownership assistance, and provision of management services for affordable housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development would distribute the funds according to the most recent fiscal year funding formula for the Indian Housing Block Grant.
  • Roughly another $278 million would go toward competitive grants for affordable housing activities.
  • Some $200 million would go toward competitive single-purpose Indian community development block grants for tribal nations and imminent threat Indian community development block grants for tribal nations or an entity that a tribal nation designates as an applicant. Imminent threat block grants would be for reasons that include long-term environmental threats and relocation.
  • Another $25 million would go to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to administer and oversee the programs, including information technology and financial reporting.
  • Some $20 million would go toward technical assistance.

These funds would remain available until September 30, 2031.

Interior

Program: Tribal Roads
Appropriation: $730 million
Section of Bill: 70108

For FY22, BBB would appropriate a total of $730 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for tribal roads. Of that amount, $715.4 million would go toward road maintenance; planning, design, construction, and reconstruction activities; and the deferred road maintenance backlog at the BIA. There would be another $14.6 million for the BIA to administer the program. These funds would remain available until September 30, 2026.

Labor

Program: Native American Programs (Workforce Development)
Appropriation: $50 million
Section of Bill: 22009

For FY22, BBB would appropriate $50 million to the Department of Labor to support employment and training activities for Indigenous people. The funds would remain available until September 30, 2026. Under this existing program, the Secretary of Labor awards competitive grants or enters into contracts or agreements with tribal nations, tribal organizations, Alaska Native entities, Indian-controlled organizations serving Indigenous people, and Native Hawaiian organizations, who then carry out the workforce development activities.

Other

Program: New Markets Tax Credit for Tribal Statistical Areas
Section of Bill: 135302

This provision would create a new, annual New Markets Tax Credit in the amount of $175 million for calendar years 2022-2025 for communities on low incomes in tribal areas and for projects that serve or employ tribal citizens.[6]

Position Announcement: State-Tribal Policy Fellow

The Montana Budget & Policy Center (MBPC) seeks a State-Tribal Policy Fellow to support our efforts to advance a policy agenda that works for tribal communities.

About the Fellowship:

The fellowship is a two-year program sponsored by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; however, the position will be housed at MBPC. The program identifies candidates – with particular attention to those having experience with communities underrepresented in state policy debates – with a demonstrated interest in working on public policies that affect low-income and diverse communities and have implications for racial equity.

The Fellowship is an exceptional opportunity to develop in-depth policy expertise. Responsibilities include tracking and analyzing legislative proposals and state budgets as well as conducting research and analysis on state budget, tax, and other issues to improve the lives of families from all backgrounds. Fellows will produce reports and other materials for use by policymakers, journalists, advocacy groups, and civic organizations and collaborate with community-based advocates to engage the public on the impacts of public policies on their communities. Additionally, Fellows will participate in training and career development opportunities, work with mentors, and have access to ongoing training and opportunities for professional growth. More information about the fellowship program can be found here.

About MBPC:

Founded in 2008, MBPC’s mission is to advance responsible tax, budget, and economic policies through credible research and analysis to promote opportunity and fairness for all Montanans.

Since 2011, MBPC has dedicated a focus of its efforts to advancing state budget decisions and policies that honor tribal sovereignty, invest in tribal communities, and promote equity and opportunity for Montanans who are American Indian. We aim to inform policymakers on how state tax and budget choices can strengthen our state by strengthening Indian Country. MBPC works to align our policy and research agendas with community priorities by building relationships with tribal leaders, advocates, organizations, and partners.

Position Details:

  • A college degree plus two years of relevant research or advocacy experience; OR a graduate degree in a related field acquired within the past two years, or an expected graduate degree before August 1, 2022.
  • Strong quantitative and writing skills.
  • Demonstrated interest in working on public policies affecting low-income communities, communities of color, and LGBTQ communities, and policies with implications for racial equity.
  • The ability to work on multiple tasks both independently and as part of a highly collaborative team.
  • Familiarity with state tax policy issues and concepts is an advantage, but not required.
  • A two-year commitment is expected – candidates must be eligible to work full time in Montana for the two-year duration of the program.
  • A basic understanding of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) history and peoples, the unique political status of tribal governments, the government-to-government relationship and federal trust responsibility, and tribal sovereignty and how this informs and shapes federal, state, and tribal government interactions and policy formation.
  • An interest in building authentic relationships with tribal leaders
  • Knowledge about national and state agendas, issues, impacts, and trends in policy as they relate to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and desire to develop a policy agenda that reflects tribal priorities within a state policy context.
  • Direct experience with services to American Indian/Alaska Native communities is preferred.
  • Experience working with American Indian/Alaska Native communities is highly preferred.

Compensation: Fellows earn a minimum salary of $50,000. MBPC offers excellent benefits, including health insurance, dental insurance, flex funds, retirement, and generous paid vacation, sick leave, holidays, sabbatical, and paid family and medical leave.

Application: To apply for a State Policy Fellowship, please complete the application form and submit the required materials by February 18, 2022. If you have questions, please contact Eric Figueroa at efigueroa@cbpp.org or Preston Parish at pparish@montanabudget.org.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Montana Budget & Policy Center are Equal Opportunity Employers that values and welcome diversity in the workplace and strongly encourages all qualified persons to apply regardless of any protected status under federal or local law including Minorities/Women/Disabilities/Veterans.

After 400 Years: It is Time to Honor the Treaties

November is Native American Heritage Month which is a time to acknowledge indigenous people’s significant contributions and celebrate Indigenous cultures, histories, and traditions. However, this month also presents an opportunity to learn about the significant shortcomings committed by the U.S. in its over 400-year relationship with tribal nations – especially regarding treaty rights.

Tribal nations have been sovereign since time immemorial. Sovereignty is a legal word for an ordinary concept – the authority to self-govern. Tribal nations have inherent rights to govern themselves in matters that are internal to their communities, integral to their unique cultures, identities, and institutions, and with respect to their special relationship to their land and their resources. Their political relationship with the U.S. government does not derive from race or ethnicity but their intrinsic nationhood status.

The U.S. constitution defines treaties with the sovereign nations as part of the “supreme law of the land,” with the same legal force as federal statutes. The Supreme Court has explained that treaties should be interpreted liberally in favor of tribal nations, as tribal nations would have understood them, with ambiguous language clarified for their benefit. America signed the first treaty in 1778 with the Delaware Indians after declaring independence from British rule. Between 1778–1871, more than 370 treaties came into law, and only Congress may revoke Indian treaty rights.

Treaties with tribal nations vary widely in their terms and provisions. Treaties commonly included:

  • A guarantee of peace;
  • A provision on land boundaries, hunting and fishing rights (often including lands outside the reservation boundaries);
  • Tribal recognition of U.S. authority & protection; or
  • Specific promises of federally provided health care, education, housing, economic development, and agricultural assistance.

From 1823 to 1832, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall authored the Marshall Trilogy – Johnson v. McIntosh, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, and Worcester v. Georgia. These laid the foundation for federal Indian law and the roots of the federal-tribal trust relationship. It also established the treatment of tribal property and resources. These cases determined that:

  • Tribal nations have the right to reside on lands reserved for them, but the United States has ultimate title;
  • Tribal nations are “domestic dependent nations”; and
  • States cannot impose their policies within Indian territories.

The United States made various political and legal commitments to tribal nations through treaty-making. Unfortunately, tribal nations are no strangers to violations of their treaty rights. Below are several policy-making eras that came to shape where we are today.

Treaty-Making and Removal Period (1778-1887): The United States negotiated over 400 treaties with American Indian tribal nations, though Congress ratified only 375. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson asked Congress to pass a bill providing for the removal of all eastern tribes to west of the Mississippi River, which Congress designated as “Indian Territory.” Congress passed the Indian Removal Act despite protests that the act violated previous treaties and laws recognizing Indian sovereignty.

Allotment and Assimilation Period (1887-1934): With treaties confining tribal nations into smaller tracts of land, poverty and poor health outcomes rose, leading to higher costs to the federal government. The Dawes Act of 1887 then served to promote assimilation and dividing of tribal nations’ communal landholdings into allotments leading to multiple owners, including millions of acres passing out of trust into non-Indian homesteading.

Tribal Reorganization Period (1934-1940s): Realizing the poor impacts of allotment & assimilation, the Indian Reorganization Act shifted policy toward more authority and autonomy to tribal governments and ended the Allotment Period.

Termination and Relocation Period (1950s-1960s): Seeing that the U.S. could save money by ending the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations, federal policy focused on ending reservations, dissolving the recognition of tribal sovereign authority, and again promoting assimilation.

Self-Determination Era (1970s-Present): Due to the termination policies proving detrimental to tribal citizens, federal policy began emphasizing increasing tribal decision-making authorities. Congress restored Tribes’ sovereign status, though most reservations and tribal assets were unrecoverable.

The federal government has never adequately funded treaty provisions. It is, however, the obligation of the federal government to protect tribal self-governance, tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights, in addition to carrying out the directions of federal statutes and court cases. The Supreme Court has defined this trust responsibility as a “moral obligation of the highest responsibility and trust.” Indian treaties have the same status as treaties with foreign nations. Because they are made under the U.S. Constitution and are “the supreme law of the land,” they take precedence over any conflicting state law. These contracts represent an exchange and acknowledgment of certain rights, not a grant of rights already held by tribal governments and peoples.

The United States should prioritize improving its over 400-year relationship between tribal nations. No easy answer exists when more than 574 federally recognized Indian nations exist across the country, each with distinctive colonization histories. Still, they share one common demand of the United States, and that is to honor the treaties.

Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity for each of us to learn about our role in honoring treaties and tribal sovereignty. One place to start is to read U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 2018 report BROKEN PROMISES: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans and OPI’s Essential Understandings of Regarding Montana Indians.

Broadband: Expanding the Digital Road in Indian Country

For decades, quality access to the internet has been important for businesses, schools, and communities. However, the global pandemic has made apparent the stark difference in access -particularly in Indian Country. Broadband is a digital road, and like most roads, they take us to places like work, school, the doctor, and stores. They also bring important goods and services into a community. The past year has dramatically increased our reliance on these digital roads. However, for Indian Country, barriers exist, and much of Indian Country has lacked the funding for broadband infrastructure. These challenging times brought a push and opportunity for funding which will be critical for Indian Country to build for the future.

First, it is essential to understand what broadband means. The term broadband refers to high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than traditional dial-up access. A recent national survey by HighSpeedInternet.com showed the net result of Montana on average having the slowest internet of all states, with roughly half the speed of the national average. Broadband access depends on many factors, including whether you live in a rural or urban community. Rural areas, especially tribal lands, lack broadband coverage the most.

Tribal lands often present significant obstacles to implement broadband and are expensive to serve. These challenges on tribal lands include rugged terrain, complex permitting processes, jurisdictional issues involving states and sovereign tribal governments, lack of the necessary infrastructure, and a majority of residential rather than business customers. Higher population density and more business customers incentivize broadband providers to invest in urban communities where they will receive more returns versus spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve a few customers in a rural area. With 84% of tribal citizens living in rural and small-town areas of Montana, these populations are more directly impacted by inadequate speeds and access to broadband coverage.

Fortunately, there is some hopeful news.

The federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) brought significant funding to Montana. The legislature set up interim committees to appropriate more than $2 billion in federal funding through HB 632 and designating $275 million of that funding for broadband-related projects. The funding from HB 632 will work through SB 297, creating a grant program to award broadband providers with funding to deploy broadband projects in frontier, unserved, or underserved areas. Tribal and local governments may partner with broadband providers to fund these projects.

Previously, in February 2020, the Federal Communications Commission opened a six-month period in which federally recognized tribal nations or Alaska Native Villages could apply for a broadband license to provide broadband service on tribal land. In Montana, seven out of eight tribal governments received a license. Previously tribal nations had to compete against giant internet service providers with vastly larger capital and staff with technical skills in bidding for the license.  Tribal governments can lease these licenses. However, having their own license and managing their own infrastructure will mean adding high-skilled, high-paying jobs in their communities. Tribal nation’s autonomy over spectrum licensing strengthens tribal sovereignty by increasing the authority of tribal nations to manage their internet just as they would a natural resource, like water or mineral rights. While tribal governments expect to receive these licenses and some federal funding, it is still only a fraction of what is needed to cover all the costs. That is why state funding from SB 297 is a critical component to make this plan a reality.  

Broadband is an essential part of infrastructure interconnecting all other industries. Every industry relies on computing, cloud storage, or other digital equipment to sell goods and services. In a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Indian Country, accessing the internet has become increasingly vital for maintaining and improving essential things like physical and mental health outcomes, employment rates, school enrollments, and social connections. The necessity for broadband is overwhelmingly clear as we continue onto this road into the future —a road towards investment, equity, and development in Indian Country.

Check out the MT broadband deployment task proposal here.

2021 State-Tribal Legislative Impacts

While the federal budget plays a significant role in Indian Country, the state budget also impacts tribal communities. Through the state budget, the Montana Legislature identifies, prioritizes, and funds the public services on which we all rely.

This report summarizes some of the bills relevant to tribal communities that the 2021 Legislature considered. It is important to note that, although the legislative session is over, lawmakers will continue to serve in the interim. For example, between legislative sessions, the State-Tribal Relations Committee (STRC) acts as a liaison with tribal governments, encourages intergovernmental cooperation, conducts interim studies, and reports its activities and findings to the Legislature. The STRC may also propose legislation for the next Legislature to consider.

Before outlining state investments in Indian Country, it is crucial to touch on taxation and economic contributions of tribal communities. Throughout the 2021 session, some lawmakers made false and misleading statements about taxation in Indian Country, at times claiming that American Indians do not pay taxes.[1] These claims are simply not true, do not capture the nuance of tax policy in Indian Country, and overlook the huge role that tribal communities play in our state. As just one example, an analysis of data from 2003-2009 shows that tribal nations in Montana collectively contribute about $1 billion per year to the Montana economy.[2] Among many other contributions, tribal nations provide programs and services that benefit all Montanans, American Indians and non-Indians alike. It is irresponsible and harmful to suggest otherwise.

For more on taxes in Indian Country, see MBPC’s policy basics reports on taxes individual tribal citizens pay, taxes and tribal governments, and taxation authority in Indian Country.

For easier navigation, click the section title or bill number to go directly to a particular section or bill. Click the bill title or section header in the body to navigate back to the below table of contents.

Bill No. Title Outcome Page
Economic Development & Infrastructure
HB 2 General Appropriations Act (Indian Country Economic Development) Passed 2
HB 657 Establish the rural broadband revolving loan account Failed 3
HB 668 Generally revise corporation laws regarding tribal entities Failed 3
SB 14 Provide for tribal participation in 9-1-1 grant program Passed 3
SB 48 Allowing transfer of certain highway funding to tribes Failed 4
SB 297 ConnectMT Act to establish broadband deployment Passed 4
Education
HB 2 General Appropriations Act (Tribal Colleges) Passed 4
HB 403 Create “grow your own” teacher grant program Passed 5
HB 626 Revise resident nonbeneficiary student reimbursement for tribal colleges Failed 5
HB 644 Establish tribal computer programming boost scholarship program Passed 5
Health
HB 676 Generally revise Medicaid and CHIP laws Failed 6
SB 100 Provide for the welfare fraud prevention act Failed 6
Language
HB 2 General Appropriations Act (Montana Indian Language Preservation) Passed 6
HB 286 Revise laws related to the Montana Digital Academy Failed 7
HB 392 Generally revise language immersion laws Failed 7
HB 487 Make Indian language education an allowable TANF work activity Failed 7
HB 671 Implement provisions of HB 2 – Section E – education Passed 8
Missing and Murdered Indigenous People
HB 35 Establish a missing persons review commission Passed 8
HB 36 Establish missing persons response team training grant program Failed 8
HB 98 Extending the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force and the LINC grant program Passed 9
HB 557 Revise missing persons laws Failed 9
SB 4 Extend the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force Passed 9
Tax
HB 526 Generally revise county assessor laws Failed 9
HB 621 Revise distribution of marijuana revenue and provide tribal government allocations Failed 9
HB 646 Generally revise environmental, tax, and labor laws Failed 10
HB 701 Generally revise marijuana laws Passed 10
SB 138 Repeal temporary tribal property tax exemption Failed 10
SB 214 Revise laws related to temporary tribal property tax exemption Passed 11
Other
HB 613 Generally revise laws related to tribal voting Failed 11
HB 632 Implement receipt of and appropriate federal stimulus and COVID recovery funds Passed 11
HB 656 Providing appropriations related to law enforcement within Flathead Reservation Passed 12
SJ 26 Interim study of the women’s prison Passed 12

Continue reading 2021 State-Tribal Legislative Impacts

Tourism Could Be an Economic Driver in Indian Country, With Focus and Investment

Because of necessary precautions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the tourism industry in Montana took a hit this year. Typically, tourism is one of Montana’s leading industries, supporting tens of thousands of jobs and contributing billions of dollars to the state economy annually. In 2017, the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 309 to increase tourism in Indian Country and Montana. Today, Montana is recognized as a leader in tribal tourism.[1] Still, there is a significant opportunity to expand tourism and economic development on reservations and across the state. As Montana rebuilds from COVID-19, the Legislature should consider solutions to reinvigorate and strengthen the tourism industry.

Tourism Provides Significant Boost to Montana’s Economy

In 2019, 12.6 million people visited Montana, spending $3.8 billion in local communities. Each visitor group spent an average of $153 per day and stayed between four and five nights. When accounting for direct, indirect, and induced impacts of this spending (see endnote for definitions), the overall economic contribution of visitor spending to Montana’s economy was an estimated $5.4 billion. This activity supported more than 53,000 jobs and generated more than $265 million in state and local taxes.[2]

Businesses like gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and outfitters tend to benefit most directly from tourism. In 2019, tourists spent the greatest share of their dollars on gasoline/diesel. Restaurants and bars saw the second greatest share, followed by sleeping accommodations and outfitters/guide businesses.[3] A breakdown of tourist spending by category for 2019 is shown in the chart on page 2.

However, tourism impacts Montana beyond visitor spending. Outdoor recreation, a major draw for nonresident visitors, also attracts visitors to return to Montana with their businesses and jobs.[4] According to a 2015 study, more than 50 percent of Montana residents have moved here from elsewhere. Of that group, about 13 percent vacationed here first, and of the 50 percent, nearly 7 percent own a business. New residents bring a wide variety of businesses that result in job creation and business diversity.[5]

National Parks, Recreation, and Indian Country Bring Tourists to Montana

As mentioned, the outdoors attract visitors to Montana. In 2019, visitors came primarily for vacation and outdoor recreation, with the main draws being Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Other popular recreation attractions included mountains, forests, and other open spaces and uncrowded areas.[6]

Indian Country also draws tourists to Montana. According to research commissioned by the Montana Department of Commerce, 82 percent of visitors to Montana expressed interest in exploring sites and experiences related to American Indian culture and history.[7] However, one-quarter to one-half of travelers do not stop while passing through a reservation because they do not know what is available.[8] While still a significant amount, of the 12.6 million visitors in 2019, more than 750,000, or 6 percent, reported reservation visits as an activity of their trip.[9] Lack of awareness and visibility contribute to the issue, showing that there is still an opportunity to grow tourism activity in Indian Country and Montana.[10]

Senate Bill 309 Helps Fund Tribal Tourism Activities

To help connect visitors to places and experiences in Indian Country, the 2017 Legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 309, which:

  1. Added to the state’s existing tourism regions an Indian Country Tourism Region, which spans the entirety of the state and its six existing tourism regions;[11]
  2. Expanded the Governor’s Tourism Advisory Council (TAC) to include a tribal member from the private sector; and
  3. Designated the State-Tribal Economic Development Commission (STEDC), an eleven-member governor-appointed body that works to expand and improve economic opportunities for each of the eight tribal nations, as the authority to expand tourism in Indian Country.

SB 309 also helps fund tribal tourism activities. It allocates 0.5 percent of state bed tax revenue to the STEDC to develop and promote the Indian Country Tourism Region.[12] In fiscal year 2019, that revenue share amounted to $120,000.[13] The coronavirus pandemic could likely have an impact. Between fiscal years 2019 and 2020, bed tax collections decreased from $35.2 million to about $30.7 million.[14] The Department of Commerce separately funds a full-time tribal tourism officer and various programs, including Indian Equity Fund (IEF) Small Business Grants and the Tourism Grant Program, for which tribal governments and tourism businesses may be eligible to apply.[15] 

Tribal Tourism Improves Access to Economic Opportunity

Visitor interest in tribal tourism presents tribal communities with the opportunity to tap into the tourism market and to translate visitor interest into economic development opportunities. Unquestionably, local tribal citizens, governments, and business owners are in the best position to understand and identify the unique local landscapes, cultures, recreational opportunities, and events that will help increase tourism in their communities. Many tribal nations are seeking to diversify their economies from single revenue-generating assets, such as agriculture, coal, or timber, to include more emphasis on tourism. From hotels and campgrounds, gas stations, guided hunts, and exhibitions of traditional culture, several tribal nations have already undertaken a variety of economic development efforts focused on tourism, and others are planning to do more in the future.

In addition to the efforts and enterprises undertaken by tribal governments, there are also several individual Indian-owned businesses working to draw visitors to their communities. These businesses offer an array of products and services, including activities such as whitewater rafting, overnight camping in tipis and cabins, and guided cultural tours of tribal homelands.

Tribal tourism promotes access to economic opportunity and a greater understanding of contemporary American Indian culture and identity. Montana’s new Indian Country Tourism Region is helping maximize the benefits of tourism to enhance reservation economies by supporting the growth of local businesses and increasing employment opportunities.

Tribal Tourism Is a Win-Win for Indian Country and Montana

Each year, nonresident visitors contribute billions of dollars to Montana’s economy, support tens of thousands of jobs, and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue. Indian Country plays a key role in drawing those visitors to Montana, entitling the tribal tourism industry to state investment. This year, tribal nations exemplified leadership and took steps to protect public health through emergency orders and proactive measures, despite the impacts on tribal tourism and economies. As Montana plans for a post-COVID-19 recovery, the Legislature should consider solutions to reinvigorate and strengthen the tourism industry.

Senate Bill 138 Has Deep Roots in Settler Colonialism

On this day (February 8) in 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, with the ultimate purpose of dissolving tribal governments and reservations and assimilating American Indians into non-Indian society. Last week, Senate Tax heard Senate Bill (SB) 138, a bill with deep roots in this settler-colonial policy.

What Is Senate Bill 138?

SB 138 would repeal the five-year tribal property tax exemption for fee-to-trust transfers that the 2011 Legislature created with SB 412. The 2019 Legislature voted down two bills related to SB 138: House Bill (HB) 401 and HB 733.

How Senate Bill 138 Is Connected to Allotment?

SB 138 is possible because of allotment. When Congress began the allotment and assimilation era in 1887, it divided communally held reservation lands into individual parcels without tribal consent, allocated parcels to tribal citizens and households, and sold “surplus” parcels to non-Indian settlers, most often without compensating tribal nations. In total, the U.S. government took more than 90 million acres (roughly the size of present-day Montana) from tribal nations.

Now, reservation lands are a patchwork pattern of ownership and land status types, with land generally falling into one of two status types: trust or fee. This has tax implications. Trust land is held in trust by the federal government and includes land collectively owned by a tribal nation and allotments to tribal citizens. Trust land is exempt from property taxes. Fee land is generally private property and can be owned by American Indians and non-Indians. Because of the forced allotment of reservation lands, state and local taxing jurisdictions may assess property taxes on tribally owned fee land.

As intended, allotment had devastating consequences for tribal communities. In 1934, Congress ended the allotment era when it passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Under the IRA, tribal nations and the federal government can return fee land to trust status. The process can be lengthy and costly to tribal nations. To facilitate those transfers and to recognize that one government did not want to tax another while the wheels of the federal government turn slowly, the 2011 Montana Legislature passed SB 412.

By attempting to repeal this exemption, SB 138 ultimately places a greater burden on tribal nations seeking to reclaim land stolen under allotment.

A Better Path Forward

Rather than impose property taxes on tribally owned reservation land, the Legislature should work to dismantle the legacy of allotment by expanding the tribal property tax exemption. This would be consistent with the treatment of other government-owned property in Montana, where property that is owned by federal, state, and local governments is tax-exempt. SB 138 targets land owned by tribal governments, disregarding and dishonoring the government-to-government relationship and political status of tribal nations as sovereign.

Expanding the exemption would also be consistent with the approach that other states take. Oregon, for example, exempts tribal lands from property taxes when a fee-to-trust application is pending. There are time constraints. Idaho exempts tribally owned reservation land altogether, in an effort to treat all government properties the same, whether federal, state, county, or tribal.

What Is Next?

Although it was recognized as bad policy long ago, tribal nations continue to feel the impacts of allotment today. MBPC opposes SB 138 and will continue to track its progress. If the 2019 legislative session is any indication for what to expect, LC0726 could come next. This bill would allow counties to recapture property taxes should the federal government deny a trust application or should the five-year exemption expire. MBPC would also oppose this bill.

For a deeper dive into the land status of Indian Country, see MBPC’s report, Policy Basics: Land Status of Indian Country.

Economic Development in Indian Country: A State Investment with Continued Returns

Since its inception in 2005, the Indian Country Economic Development (ICED) program has made a significant contribution toward improving the economic conditions on reservations in Montana. These investments continue to receive a return by creating and growing tribally owned enterprises undertaken by tribal governments, as well as the private business sector on reservations. As a result, this helps create and retain local jobs and keeps dollars in circulation in rural economies.

Currently, ICED program funding is one-time-only, meaning the Montana Legislature must reapprove it every two years. This makes it difficult for funding recipients from Indian Country to formulate long-term economic development strategies and projects.

The novel coronavirus pandemic further makes the case for ongoing state investments. According to a September 2020 survey conducted by the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 75 percent of participating tribal governments have reduced economic development services during the pandemic to prioritize other services.[1] According to an April 2020 survey of private-sector tribal businesses in a four-state region that includes Montana, 38 percent had closed by that point, with the outlook worsening with time.[2] After 15 years of one-time-only funding, now is the time for the Legislature to commit to the ICED program as a long-term economic development opportunity and to fund it in Montana’s base budget.

State Investment Helps Business in Indian Country

The ICED program makes a robust impact toward improving the economic conditions in reservation communities. In 2019, the Legislature approved $1.75 million in funding for the program for the biennium.[3] ICED provides tribal governments, organizations, and citizens with funding and technical assistance to carry out economic development activities.

Tribal governments regularly access ICED’s Tribal Business Planning Grants to conduct feasibility studies on possible business ventures they may undertake on behalf of their citizens. These grants are especially helpful in assisting tribal governments in furthering their economic development plans in ways that reflect local priorities, resources, and cultures.[4] Each government is eligible to receive up to $30,000 per year.[5]

ICED also promotes private-sector growth on reservations through a range of support that allows individual American Indian entrepreneurs to access assistance at every step of their business growth, from conception to expansion.

For example, the Native American Business Advisors (NABA) Program funds the services of business advisors through an existing local organization for each tribal nation in Montana to provide business counseling and technical assistance to American Indian entrepreneurs and businesses in tribal communities.[6] This includes start-up assistance, marketing training, guidance for using business resources, commercial loan application assistance, credit counseling services, referrals to other organizations, and application assistance to the Indian Equity Fund (IEF) Small Business Grants.[7]

IEF grants can be up to $14,000 and assist individuals with costs associated with start-up and expansion efforts.[8] In 2020, 25 Indian-owned small businesses received IEF grants, supporting 62 jobs.[9] Based on a recent analysis of the program for years 2007 to 2015, IEF grant recipients invested nearly 30 percent of their grant funds directly into reservation economies. IEF grantees spent about 75 percent of their funds on asset development, primarily capital equipment and renovations.[10]

According to a 2018 report, 84 percent of IEF grant recipients remain in operation after five years,[11] whereas just 20 percent of small businesses nationally succeed.[12] This demonstrates that investments into reservation-based businesses help bring much-needed products and services into underserved markets.

IEF grantees and other successful Indian-owned businesses that are ready to expand can access critical gap financing from the Native American Collateral Support (NACS) Program. NACS provides collateral support security for lenders making loans to Indian-owned small businesses that lack sufficient collateral or equity but meet all other requirements for securing larger commercial business loans.[13]

Indian Country Economic Development Needs a Long-Term Commitment

Ultimately, the ICED program increases employment opportunities, helps increase the availability of products and services on reservations, and increases the commercial transactions within local communities, all of which keeps local dollars circulating in local economies. Whether they are tribally owned or individually owned, reservation-based businesses significantly contribute to a healthy local and statewide economy and deserve continued support.

The Legislature should move ICED from a one-time-only appropriation into the base budget because:

  • Based budget funding provides the continuity of support needed to conduct sustainable economic development. Economic development works best when nourished over time, and
  • Two-year funding time spans equate to short-term economic development projects. Moving ICED to base funding will lead to bigger outcomes over time by allowing for long-term economic projects in Indian Country.

An Outstanding Return on Investment: Tribal Colleges and Their Contributions to Montana

Tribal colleges are critical in providing many Montanans, Indian and non-Indian, with a pathway to higher education and the ability to prepare for the workforce. Tribal colleges also provide rural communities with jobs and contribute substantially to the economic health of our state. Montana should continue to prioritize its investment to support students attending tribal colleges.

Tribal Colleges Play a Key Role in Montana’s Higher Education System

Tribal colleges in Montana play a crucial role within the state’s broader higher education system. Montana is home to seven of the nation’s 37 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) – more than any other state. In 2018, the seven tribal colleges in Montana collectively served nearly 2,400 students.[1] Individual tribal nations chartered the tribal colleges, each of which is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.[2] TCUs provide a range of educational opportunities to their students, from adult basic education and certificates to associate and bachelor degrees.

Tribal colleges grant students access to opportunity through quality, affordable education. Student demographics include those who are older, have children, and come from households with lower incomes.[3} TCUs are an accessible, affordable option for students and families. Due to their modest size and structure, TCUs provide their students with an affordable education that includes the personal attention needed for student success. In fact, American Indian students who attend TCUs are more likely than their peers who attend non-TCUs to graduate without debt, receive support, and pursue careers that align with their interests.[4]

Over the past few years, tribal colleges have increased their academic offerings to reflect both the needs of their local communities and broader job markets. For example, many tribal colleges now offer degrees in information technology, business management, and entrepreneurship, as well as health care-related professions, like nursing and psychology. Because of this, tribal colleges serve as a stepping stone for graduates who go on to earn their bachelor degrees and graduate degrees at Montana’s universities. To this end, tribal colleges have developed coordinated agreements with colleges in the Montana University System (MUS) so that students can successfully transfer to a MUS school or access online courses to meet their academic and career needs. For 2019-2020, 86 American Indian students transferred from one of the seven tribal colleges to a MUS school.[5]

Tribal Colleges Fuel Economic Growth in Montana 

According to a recent economic analysis, tribal colleges in Montana infused $76.2 million into the state economy in 2009.[6] In 2019 dollars, that amounts to about $91 million.[7] Tribal colleges create jobs for faculty and staff, as well as for students upon graduation.  Many of these jobs are in rural communities, where they are especially needed. These jobs increase the amount of consumer spending and improve the economic activity in the rural communities where tribal colleges are located. Tribal colleges also stimulate local and state economies when they purchase goods and services that support their daily functioning.

Individual studies confirm that tribal colleges create a significant positive net impact on the local, state, and even national economies.[8] For example, during the 2013-2014 school year, Aaniiih Nakoda College spent $3.3 million on employee payroll and benefits and $4.4 million on goods and services. Combined with student and alumni spending, this generated $21.6 million – equal to roughly 13 percent – of the total gross regional product of Blaine County. This economic contribution was the equivalent of creating 461 new jobs. [9] For comparison, the total working-age population (those age 15 through 64) of Blaine County in 2014 was 4,018.[10] Because of their Aaniiih Nakoda College education, students see an additional $14.4 million in increased earnings over their working lives, an annual rate of return of 20 percent on the cost of pursuing their education. For every dollar spent educating students at the college, taxpayers receive an average of $2.30 in return over the course of the students’ working lives. This is an annual rate of return of 6 percent.[11]

Our state benefits when students benefit from a greater earning potential, access to more job opportunities, and careers that align with their interests and goals.

Inequities in Public Funding of Tribal Colleges

Although tribal colleges get some revenue from charging tuition and fees, their primary funding is federal and comes from Title III of the Higher Education Opportunity Act and the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act.[12] While federal law authorizes $8,000 in funding to tribal colleges for each American Indian, or beneficiary, student, the actual disbursement is subject to appropriation. Beneficiary students are those students who are enrolled citizens of a federally recognized tribal nation or are the immediate descendant of an enrolled citizen. As of 2016, tribal colleges received slightly more than $6,700 per beneficiary student.[13]

Tribal colleges enroll a significant number of nonbeneficiary students, or those students who do not meet the beneficiary description.[14] In 2018, non-Indian students made up a varying portion of enrollment at tribal colleges in Montana – as low as five at Little Big Horn College and up to 183 at Salish Kootenai College.[15] Tribal colleges do not receive federal support for these students and are left to absorb the cost in their budgets.[16]

In 1995, the Montana Legislature responded to this funding shortfall by passing House Bill 544, appropriating $1.4 million to go towards reimbursing tribal colleges for the education of resident full-time nonbeneficiary students. This investment is now known as the Tribal College Assistance Program (TCAP). In 1997, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 84, making TCAP permanent; the funding distribution, however, remains contingent upon a line-item appropriation.[17] As of 2016, Montana is one of just three states that provides state funding for tribal colleges.[18]

Despite this investment, funding shortfalls of tribal colleges remains an issue. In 2019, the Legislature funded TCAP for the biennium at a level of roughly $2 million, including a one-time-only increase of $350,000 for tribal colleges to help students prepare for and complete the HiSET exam, a high school equivalency test. For comparison, the Legislature provided the three community colleges in Montana with nearly $27.5 million in funding for the biennium.[19] Current state law caps the maximum annual TCAP reimbursement at $3,280 per enrolled nonbeneficiary student. Again, distribution remains contingent upon a line-item appropriation.[20] In 2019, state support per resident full-time student was $7,684 at Dawson Community College, $6,166 at Flathead Valley Community College, and $6,692 at Miles Community College.[21]

Tribal Colleges Deserve Continued Support

The 2023 biennial executive budget requests $1.68 million for the Tribal College Assistance Program.[22] As Montana legislators navigate tough budget decisions this coming session, they should consider the contributions tribal colleges make to our state. The return on investment in these institutions is one of the soundest we can make. The Legislature should:

  • Increase the TCAP state funding ceiling of $3,280 per student to be more in line with state per-student funding of community colleges, and
  • Adjust the maximum annual TCAP reimbursement for nonbeneficiary students for inflation.

Tribal Language Preservation Strengthens Communities But Needs Consistent Funding

Across the nation, tribal languages are vanishing at an alarming rate, taking with them a vital piece of culture and knowledge. The novel coronavirus pandemic presents a new threat to language preservation efforts. Elders, who are a vulnerable population to the virus, help to keep tribal languages alive. While the Montana Legislature has taken steps to preserve and promote tribal languages in the state, the Legislature should make funding for the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program (MILP) and language immersion programs permanent, rather than one-time-only. Permanent funding creates certainty and helps funding recipients develop sustaining programs. These programs are an important step forward in improving student outcomes, strengthening communities, and preserving culture, language, and history in Montana.

Montana Takes Important Steps in Preserving Tribal Languages

In 2013, the Montana Legislature established the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program, providing $2 million in one-time-only funding to support language preservation efforts by tribal governments.[1] Since then, the Legislature has funded the program on a one-time-only basis, with $1.5 million most recently in 2019.[2]

In 2015, the Legislature passed the Cultural Integrity Commitment Act (Senate Bill 272) to encourage school districts to create language immersion programs on their campuses. The act provided a one-time-only appropriation of $45,000 through the 2017 biennium for Indian language immersion programs of school districts on or near reservations or for those with at least one school that has an American Indian student enrollment of at least 10 percent.[3] The program made Montana the first state after Hawaii to fund tribal language immersion in public schools.[4]

In 2019, the Legislature failed to pass House Bill 371, which would have created a permanent funding source for language preservation programs at a level of $2 million per biennium.[5] Without further action by the Legislature, funding for language preservation programs will end in 2021.

These programs have helped curb the trend in tribal language loss by spurring the creation of language education courses, dictionaries, sound books, and Montana tribal language apps, as well as increasing school districts’ capacity. As a result, all Montanans now have greater access to tribal languages. To continue to build on the successes of this program and curb further loss of tribal languages, the Legislature should permanently and adequately invest in MILP in the 2021 legislative session.

Why Language Preservation Efforts Need Continued Investments

Because of past federal policies and practices, tribal languages are disappearing. Historically, many people held the idea that tribal languages hindered American Indian assimilation. This led to policies that banned tribal languages in school settings, contributing to language loss today.[6]

Of the more than 300 tribal languages once spoken in the United States, only 175 remain. If no action is taken, experts estimate that no more than 20 will remain by 2050.[7] Montana is home to 12 of these languages.[8] Of those, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, and Montana Salish are critically endangered, meaning that the youngest speakers are elders and that they speak the language partially and infrequently.[9] Despite having a large number of tribal language speakers relative to other tribal nations, the share of citizens of the Crow Tribe of Indians who speak the language fluently has decreased from about 85 percent 60 years ago to about 30 percent today. The decline has been especially sharp among young speakers.[10] Languages that are not spoken by children are at great risk of becoming extinct, or of having no remaining speakers.[11] Unlike speakers of “world” languages, such as Spanish and French, who can be found around the world, speakers of tribal languages tend to live on tribal homelands, meaning shrinking communities of speakers are not replenished.[12] That means that tribal languages are likely lost forever when no speakers remain on tribal homelands.

Why Tribal Language Immersion Programs Are Necessary

When communities and schools include tribal languages as part of an academic curriculum, American Indian students benefit in a number of ways, including improved academic success, increased self-esteem and self-worth, a greater sense of cultural identity and belonging, and strengthened relationships.

Increased Academic Performance and Success

Many students in Montana stand to benefit from language immersion programs. American Indian students make up about 11 percent, or 16,128, of public K-12 students in Montana.[13] American Indian students that receive language immersion instruction perform better academically than students who do not receive language immersion instruction and also see greater retention rates.[14],[15] For example, in just its first year, the Blackfeet language immersion program in Browning saw both greater attendance and academic performance among its students.[16]

Increased Sense of Identity and Self-Esteem

Language-based curricula and instruction promote a strong sense of cultural identity.[17] This is important for a number of reasons. When schools include tribal language in the curriculum, students tend to have increased self-esteem, experience less anxiety, and show a greater level of self-efficacy.[18] In fact, American Indian youth who have a stronger sense of cultural identity are less likely to fall into drug and alcohol abuse, more likely better able to cope with stress, and less likely to have suicidal thoughts.[19] Given the high suicide rates among American Indian youth in Montana, language preservation could be considered one of the tools used to address the issue.

Improved Community Engagement and Relationships

Language immersion programs impact how students relate to themselves and their environments, in part by offering opportunities that bring family members and members of the community into students’ learning environment.[20] This fosters positive child-adult relationships both inside and outside of the classroom, in addition to strengthening family bonds and building community.[21] This kind of engagement provides students a supportive environment and the opportunity to practice language outside of the classroom, ultimately exposing more members of the community to the language.

Policy Recommendations for the Legislature

Continued investments in language preservation will provide the opportunity for more in-depth work toward preserving these valuable languages and will further strengthen the relationship between the state and tribal nations in Montana.

  • Continue to invest in the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program, and make funding permanent, rather than one-time-only, and
  • Continue to invest in the Cultural Integrity and Commitment Act, and make funding permanent, rather than one-time-only.