Montana Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee meets March 29 and 30 in Helena

The Montana Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee takes on several weighty issues at its March 29-30 meeting in Helena, including substance abuse, missing persons, and improving Indian student achievement and outcomes for tribal members on parole and probation.

The meeting kicks off with an overview of substance use in Montana and various state initiatives to combat it. The topic ties into the STRC’s SJ 3 study of increasing access to tribal resources for tribal members on parole and probation. Criminal possession of dangerous drugs is the number one conviction for all men and women in Montana. Access to behavioral health programs and counselors are common challenges for all offenders on parole and probation. In Indian Country, long distances, a lack of adequate transportation, and poor cell phone coverage can especially complicate an offender’s odds of success.

American Indians comprise 6.6% of Montana’s total population, but make up 22% of women and 16% of men in the state correctional system. Research by the legislatively-established Commission on Sentencing in 2015-2016 found American Indians account for 27% of all arrests that relate to failure to appear for court events or for violations of parole and probation.

New data from the Department of Corrections shows 47% of American Indians on parole or probation in Montana live on a reservation or in a nearby town. Fifty-one percent are supervised in Montana’s seven largest communities: Billings, Great Falls, Missoula, Helena, Butte, Bozeman, and Kalispell. The STRC will look at the availability of resources on reservations and in urban areas at its March meeting and at options for increasing access to tribal and culturally-relevant programs in both contexts in hopes of improving outcomes for tribal members under state supervision.

Another issue of significant focus by the STRC is missing persons, human trafficking, and violence against women in Indian Country. In March, the Department of Justice will talk about gaps it identified in Montana’s missing persons response programs and about possibilities for filling them. A doctoral student from Lethbridge University will discuss her research to identify all of the missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada. She’s found 2,500 cases since 2015. The STRC will also learn about trends in fatalities associated with domestic violence and hear about a program that serves Indian women who experience violence in Montana and five other states.

This interim, the STRC is also studying ways to improve Indian student achievement. Data received in September showed that English Learners, students who are not proficient in English and who have another language of impact spoken at home, struggle the most. Nearly 70% of Montana’s roughly 3,000 English Learners are American Indian. The STRC will learn about ways other states are funding programs for English Learners.

The committee will also consider policy levers to recruit and retain teachers, which the Office of Public Instruction identified as a particular concern for schools located on reservations. The STRC will hear from Blackfeet Community College and UM-Western, which teamed up to create a 4-year teacher preparatory program with the hopes of certifying 40 teachers to serve Browning Public Schools by 2020.

The STRC will also receive updates about suicide prevention, the Tribal Health Improvement Plan at DPHHS, state tribal economic development programs, and 2020 Census preparation and outreach in tribal communities.

Senate members of the STRC are Jen Gross (D-Billings), Steve Hinebauch (R-Wibaux), Jason Small (R-Busby), and Frank Smith (D-Poplar). House members of the STRC are Alan Doane (Vice Chair, R-Bloomfield), James O’Hara (R-Fort Benton), Rae Peppers (D-Lame Deer), and Jonathan Windy Boy (Chair, D-Box Elder).

The committee meeting begins at 8:15 a.m. on March 29 in room 152 of the Capitol in Helena.

For more information on the meeting, including a full agenda, visit the committee’s website or contact Hope Stockwell, committee staff.

Committee Website: www.leg.mt.gov/tribal

Committee Staff: hstockwell@mt.gov or 406-444-9280