Report: Montana’s tribal economies face unique virus-related hurdles

Missoulian, Helena Independent Record, Montana Standard, and Billings Gazette

Tribal nations contribute roughly $1 billion annually to the Montana economy, but they’re suffering the consequences of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and action is needed to ensure they aren’t left behind if a recovery occurs. That’s according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, a Helena-based research nonprofit, that recently compiled a report using data from other organizations looking at the financial toll the lockdown and current recession have had on Indian Country in Montana.

For example, one April 2020 survey by the Plains Regional Native CDFI (Community Development Financial Institutions) Coalition of private-sector tribal businesses in a four-state region that includes Montana found that businesses had laid off 26% of employees, cut hours for 83% and placed 86% on leave without pay.

“The novel coronavirus pandemic lays bare deep inequities across Montana,” said Preston Parish, the state tribal policy analyst at the Center.

“Due to a long history of racist public policies, ongoing settler colonialism, and underinvestment, Montanans who are American Indian disproportionately experience underlying health conditions and economic challenges that heighten the risk of the pandemic.”

Parish said that same history continues today by “denying tribal nations the resources needed to respond to and recover from emergencies of this scale.”

“This moment presents us with the opportunity to begin reversing that course,” Parish continued.

The Montana Budget and Policy Center report says that tribal governments and reservation economies face unique challenges that will hamper efforts to respond to and recover from the pandemic. For example, a study by a University of Montana tax policy researcher found that non-tribal taxing jurisdictions have “successfully challenged in court tribal governments’ exclusive right to levy taxes within their reservation boundaries.”

That means tribal governments must provide many of the same services as other levels of government without the usual tax revenue on which other governments rely. According to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, more than half of tribal governments in the state expect large drops in revenue from tribal enterprises, which often fund tribal government services. The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on tribal areas will ripple out to the entire state economy, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center report.

“Not only do tribal governments provide economic contributions and services that benefit Montanans, tribal governments play an important role in the ecosystem of employment in the state,” the report states. “They are often one of the largest employers in their regions and provide employment opportunities to both American Indians and non-Indians. As of April 10, 2020, nearly half (47%) of tribal governments across the country had already cut staff, and 50% anticipated needing to make cuts in six months. Only 16% of tribal governments expected no negative changes in staffing in six months.”

Julie Burckhard owns and operates the Old Timer Café in St. Ignatius with her husband. She can attest to the hard toll the virus has taken on business.

“I would say I lost a fourth of my income for the year,” she said. “The thing of it is, summer is the time when we build up the bank to make it through the winter months. So now is not the time it’s hurting me. It’s going to hurt me the most in the winter when I don’t have any money to pay the bills.”

She lost the business of large tour buses that usually stop to eat there and she also lost employees due to the closure.

Burckhard said she’s “not in a big rush” to hire anyone right now because of the uncertainty.

“I lost half of the night crew,” she said. “They all decided they don’t want to work nights and they made too much money on unemployment. All my teenagers already left, so that left just me with two employees. So my husband and I decided to run it ourselves.”

Burckhard is not a tribal member, but two-thirds of her staff, including her oldest son, are enrolled. She said two other dine-in restaurants in town have not opened their doors back up yet. She decided not to take advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program from the federal government because she felt the program was “too open-ended” and she wasn’t sure she could get the loan forgiven.

Not all businesses on the Flathead Reservation have been hard-hit.

Arlene Bontrager manages the Mission General Store in St. Ignatius. They have about four full-time staff members and four part-timers.

“We did good,” she said. “We did better than normal because we had food. This week we slowed down. Right now I’m telling people we’re getting local tourists. People from Missoula, Kalispell, Whitefish and Polson. People that knew about us but never stopped in. Now they’re coming in because they can’t travel too far.”

Other businesses that were hard hit are now bouncing back.

Leah Allestad manages the Huckleberry Patch in Arlee.

“We were actually closed from April 24th to May 9th,” she said. “As soon as we opened, I seemed to start seeing a lot of tourists right from the beginning. Business has just been picking up now. It’s been steady.”