On the Road: MBPC Begins Annual Reservation Visits

Last week, State-Tribal policy duo, Heather Cahoon and Preston Parish, hit the road to visit with tribal leaders from the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservations. The purpose was to hear directly from tribal leaders about pressing issues affecting Indian Country, to learn where state investments could make a difference, and to encourage tribal leaders to get involved in the state budgeting process early. We met with tribal council executives, tribal college presidents, and directors of tribal health departments.

We listened as leaders spoke about shortcomings in state investments and policies, notably around chronic health issues and lack of adequate revenue. One tribal chairman, for example, expressed that Montana’s tribes are hamstrung by their limited authority to tax. With greater authority, tribes would be better able to invest in their communities. This conversation was timely as MBPC recently released a two-part series about taxes in Indian Country. Part 1 focuses on individual tribal members, and Part 2 focuses on tribal governments.

During our visits, we saw evidence of tribal communities benefiting from targeted state investments. One such example is Prairie Brew, an American-Indian-owned coffee shop on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. Prairie Brew was launched using funds from the Indian Country Economic Development (ICED)’s Indian Equity Fund (IEF) grant program. IEF dollars are available to members of federally- and state-recognized tribes in Montana. Funds are awarded to projects that strengthen Montana’s economy through the development and enhancement of business opportunities on reservations, in tribal communities, and for American Indian businesses. To learn more about ICED and IEF, see our report, Economic Development in Indian Country: A State Investment with Continued Returns. Capitalizing on IEF dollars, Prairie Brew has expanded from its once-shared space to now operating its own shop, complete with a drive-thru.

Likewise, Rocky Boy’s tribal health leaders attribute Medicaid expansion, at least in part, to the unprecedented growth they’ve seen in their tribal health department. With their brand-new facilities now up and running, the department is preparing to launch programs that incentivize tribal members for seeking out preventative care. The tribal health director stressed the important role Medicaid expansion has played in the department’s ability to offer such programming.

Despite these success stories, there is ample opportunity to increase state investments in and improve policies affecting Indian Country. To ensure Montana is making wise investments in tribal communities, MBPC will work to support tribal leaders and community members as they increase their involvement in the state budgeting process. When American Indians engage in debates on how to invest state funds, legislators can better understand the unique needs of Indian Country. MBPC will continue to work closely with tribal governments, tribal-led organizations, advocacy groups, community members, and educators to assess tribal needs and develop policy proposals.

In the coming weeks, we will be traveling to the Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead, and Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservations to hear from their tribal leaders. Stay tuned.

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