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 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
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
HB 676 Generally revise Medicaid and CHIP laws Failed 6
SB 100 Provide for the welfare fraud prevention act Failed 6
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
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
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.

Policy Basics: Taxation Authority in Indian Country

This report focuses on taxation authority and is the final of a five-part series that introduces readers to basic concepts in Indian Country. Taxation authority, or the power to tax, intersects with the topics of sovereignty, citizenship, land, and jurisdiction, all topics covered earlier in this series.

This report is not intended to fully capture the breadth and complexity of taxation authority in Indian Country. Rather, its purpose is to provide an overview of taxation authority today and what that means for tribal government revenues. For more on taxes in Indian Country, see the Montana Budget & Policy Center’s reports that focus on taxes as they relate to tribal citizens and tribal governments.

Exercising the power to tax is an important government function. Like all governments, tribal governments need revenue. Taxes fund public services like bridges and roads, schools, water and sewer systems, and so much more. However, non-tribal taxing jurisdictions have hamstrung the ability of tribal governments to raise needed tax revenue by challenging tribal governments’ once-exclusive taxation authority. This has clear consequences for tribal revenues.

Taxation Is Important to Tribal Sovereignty

It is important to begin with the fact that the power of tribal nations to tax is inherent to tribal sovereignty, or the inherent right of tribal nations to self-govern and to self-determine their futures. As discussed in the first policy basics of this series, the United States did not give tribal nations this right. Tribal nations have been sovereign since time immemorial. The same sovereignty that allowed tribal nations to enter into treaties with the United States is also what enables them to tax within the boundaries of their reservations.[1]

Taxation is important to tribal sovereignty for at least two reasons. First, it is an important tool of control. This could apply to the regulation of economic activity, for example. Second, taxes help to pay for te government programs, services, and functions on which we all rely.[2] Like any government, tribal governments need revenue to fund essential services and programs that, among other things, keep communities healthy, educate children, protect natural resources and land, and develop workforces. Taxes help to provide that revenue.

Overview of Taxation Authority in Indian Country

Tribal governments once held exclusive taxation authority in Indian Country. While the inherent right of tribal nations to tax is well-established, non-tribal governments have challenged tribal taxing power. In fact, taxation authority in Indian Country has been one of the most litigated issues between tribal nations and state and local governments. This is largely because federal tax policy in Indian Country leaves room for legal challenges between governments with overlapping jurisdictions and competing interests in terms of revenue needs.[3]

Over time, state and local governments have successfully challenged in court the exclusive right of tribal governments to tax within their own reservation boundaries to the point that tribal taxation authority is diminished today. This denies tribal governments much-needed revenue and means that tribal governments must provide many of the same services as other governments without the usual tax revenue on which those governments rely.[4]

It also means that many tribal nations must rely on natural resources, leases, and tribally owned enterprises as their only source of revenue outside of federal dollars. Even here, states have fought for the ability to co-tax certain economic activities involving non-Indians in Indian Country, extracting wealth from tribal communities and creating a system that can hamstring economic growth.[5]

To be clear, despite state and local government challenges to tribal taxation authority, tribal governments retain their sovereign power to tax. Yet, states generally assert their taxation authority when jurisdictions overlap. This undermines tribal taxation authority and worsens fiscal problems for tribal nations.[6]

Below is a basic overview of both tribal and state taxation authority in Indian Country. This section helps to illustrate how the actions of non-tribal governments have complicated taxation authority in Indian Country and how that limits revenue sources for tribal governments.

Tribal Taxation Authority

Because of their sovereign status, tribal governments can impose taxes on their citizens living on their reservations. Though, few tribal governments do this. One reason includes economic challenges, which are part of the legacy of settler colonialism. Among the few taxes that tribal governments in Montana assess are excise taxes on the on-reservation sale of alcohol, tobacco, and fuel and severance taxes on natural resource development. However, the state shares in this revenue. Tribal governments can impose taxes on certain activities of non-Indians on reservation trust land and on reservation fee land, but only when the tax passes certain tests.[7]

State Taxation Authority

In general, the state cannot tax tribal nations or tribal citizens on their reservation. As subdivisions of the state, local governments are subject to the same limitations.[8] Property taxes are an exception to this, as states and counties can assess property taxes on on-reservation fee land that tribal nations or citizens own. In the case of state income taxes, it depends on where tribal citizens both live and work.[9] Like tribal governments, the state can impose taxes on activities of non-Indians in Indian Country when the tax meets certain conditions.[10]

Federal, State, Local, and Tribal Government Revenue Sources

Given this history, it is no coincidence that tribal governments are generally on uneven footing with federal, state, and local governments in exercising their power to tax.[11] This section outlines the striking differences in revenue sources for federal, state, local, and tribal governments.

Federal Government Revenue

The federal government gets most of its money by collecting taxes and borrowing.[12] In 2019, tax revenue paid for nearly $3.5 trillion of the federal government’s $4.4 trillion budget.[13],[14] Of that, individual income taxes made up nearly 50 percent, payroll taxes made up about 36 percent, and corporate income taxes made up roughly 7 percent. Excise and other taxes made up the rest.[15]

State Government Revenue

According to the latest Montana Department of Revenue biennial report, taxes represent the largest source of state revenue (44 percent). Of tax revenue, individual income taxes make up the largest share (roughly 45 percent), followed by sales and excise taxes (14.3 percent), severance and other taxes (13 percent), and property taxes (10.6 percent). Other taxes make up the remaining share.[16]

Money from the federal government is the second largest source of state revenue (41 percent). This money includes federal pay

ments to the state for Medicaid and other state programs, as well as education funding for local school districts. The remaining revenue comes from other sources.[17]

Local Government Revenue

As with the federal government and the state, tax revenue is the largest revenue source for local governments (36 percent). Local government and school district tax collections come almost entirely from property taxes (96.5 percent). Like the state, local governments also receive money from other governments. Transfers from the state make up 35 percent of local government revenue, while federal transfers make up 6 percent of revenue. Other sources make up the remaining share.[18]

Tribal Government Revenue

Unlike other governments, tax revenue is an insignificant source of revenue for tribal governments. Nearly half (47 percent) of state and local revenue in Montana comes from taxes.[19] As mentioned above, the federal government used tax revenue to pay for almost 80 percent of its $4.4 trillion budget in 2019.

According to the Montana Department of Commerce, federal funding represents the largest share of revenue for tribal governments (roughly 58 percent). To be clear, most of this federal funding to tribal nations stems from the federal government’s trust responsibility to fund services, as articulated in treaties.[20] However, the federal government chronically fails to uphold this legally binding trust responsibility. For example, the Indian Health Service budget meets just more than half of American Indian health-care needs.[21]

Without a strong tax base, tribal governments rely on business revenues as their core source of revenue outside of federal dollars. The second largest revenue source for tribal governments is earned (nearly 26 percent), which comes from leasing activity, investments, and tribally owned enterprises, for example. The remaining revenue is a combination of state and other sources.[22]

Tribal Taxation Authority Is Good for Montana

Tribal governments retain their sovereign power to tax. Non-tribal taxing jurisdictions currently limit the ability of tribal governments to exercise that power and to provide essential services that benefit Montana. Honoring tribal taxation authority presents an opportunity to protect and enhance tribal government functions and services.[23] What is good for Indian Country is good for Montana.

Update: Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19

Our previous blog, Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19, covered the actions tribal nations have taken in reservations across Montana to protect public health and prevent the spread of COVID-19. While Montana has moved closer to reopening, tribal nations have continued to prioritize public health through measures that include extended stay-at-home orders and travel checkpoints.

Tribal nations are now faced with an increase of coronavirus cases on their reservations because surrounding areas and travelers have not adhered to the same measures. This pandemic has made evident how necessary respecting tribal sovereignty is to American Indian health and public health.

As we wrote in our previous blog, tribal nations are more susceptible to the pandemic for many intersecting reasons. In addition to structural barriers to health care, settler-colonialism’s attempt to erase indigenous food systems, economies, and lands negatively impacted the health of American Indians. These disparities are direct results of historic and ongoing policies pursued by the federal government, states, and settlers.

In Montana, American Indians make up just 6.7 percent of the population but 15 percent of the total number of coronavirus cases. The past month has been especially hard on tribal communities who have seen a rise in the amount of COVID-19 cases impacting tribal citizens, including many elders. Elder tribal citizens are an especially vulnerable group, and tribal nations have taken measures to safeguard them. Elders hold important roles within tribal nations, communities, and families. Not only are elders beloved, they pass on irreplaceable indigenous knowledge and languages to future generations.

Over the past three weeks on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, the tribal nation lost 24 citizens due to the coronavirus, and many were tribal elders. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has taken steps to flatten the curve on the reservation. The tribal nation has implemented a reservation-wide curfew and stay-at-home order that it recently extended until total active COVID-19 cases remain at or below 50 for 30 consecutive days. According to the Northern Cheyenne Board of Health, there were 657 cumulative positive tests as of October 2.

In addition, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe has been distributing personal protective equipment (PPE), food, hygiene products, and more to its citizens. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe also has an elderly assistance program in place that provides services such as grocery and pharmacy pick-up.

The Crow Tribe of Indians reported 899 cumulative positive tests and 24 deaths on the reservation by October 2. The Crow Tribe of Indians is continuing to encourage travelers to stay off of the reservation. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the efforts of the Crow’s Incident Command Center and its efficacy.

The Blackfeet Nation closed all tribal programs and departments from October 4-25, with the exception of emergency and essential services, to assist in curbing the rising number of COVID-19 cases on the reservation. The Blackfeet Nation also distributes goods and PPE to its citizens. According to Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command, there were 325 active cases of COVID-19 on the Blackfeet Reservation as of October 6.

Although the federal government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on March 27, providing $8 billion to tribal nations to buffer the economic impact of the coronavirus, there is still more need. Some tribal nations have used this funding to purchase PPE and testing kits and have funded other tribal government response efforts.

Many tribal nations have also decided to give stimulus relief checks to their tribal citizens to offset some of the financial hardships of the pandemic. Most are often less than a thousand dollars per person depending on the tribal nation. However, these assistance programs are not recurring, and the funds are limited. Although these funds may provide some temporary relief to tribal citizens, this does not change structural inequities like access to health care.

Respecting tribal sovereignty throughout this pandemic and beyond is integral to the health of tribal citizens. This could be the fulfillment of treaty obligations to fully fund IHS, deferring to tribal taxation authority, and adhering to tribal nations’ travel restrictions. Everyone has a role to play in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and protecting those most susceptible to it.

2020 State-Tribal Symposium Wrap Up

Thank you to all those who attended our 2020 State-Tribal Policy Symposium: Advancing Investments in Indian Country.

This year’s symposium had attendees from each tribal nation in Montana and more from across the country. We had tribal leaders, lawyers, students, community members, American Indian business owners, state legislators, and more.

This was our first time doing this event virtually and we learned so much. We appreciate everyone who attended – whether on zoom or by watching our Facebook live. We want to thank everyone who filled out an evaluation which will help inform our work moving forward.

You can find our most updated version of the State Budget Handbook for Indian Country online. This handbook mirrors the agenda we walked through at the Symposium. However, it is a useful tool even if you were not able to attend. We also hope you’ll check out all of our State-Tribal work here.

For those who weren’t able to make it, or for those of you who want to watch again, you can find recordings of each session at the following links:

Session 1 – The State Budget and Indian Country

Session 2 – Legislative Session 101 – Crash Course

Session 3 – Panel: Elevating American Indian Voices at the Capitol: Current Investments and Future Opportunities

Session 4 – Testimony, Advocacy, and Community Engagement

Session 5 – Keynote, Tara Houska

Again, thank you for your support for this year’s State-Tribal Policy Symposium.

To stay on top of MBPC’s State-Tribal work, follow @MontanaBudget on Facebook and Twitter.