I watched history being made this week.
I sit on the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee, and on Feb. 16, the tribes of Montana came together to speak out against a bill, HB 241, that would have allowed non-tribal members to hunt on privately owned lands inside Montana’s seven Indian reservations while ignoring tribal fish and wildlife regulations and codes. Managing fish and wildlife is a fundamental responsibility and right of both state and tribal governments, so all of the tribes rightly saw HB 241 as an assault on their sovereignty.
I say it was history because I have never witnessed so many tribal leaders and members speaking with one voice on an issue of concern to all tribes, and I know it does not happen often. I now know that when it does happen, it is powerful and moving. The witnesses supporting HB 241, non-tribal property owners from Lake County, left after testifying rather than listen to the strong, clear testimony of the Sioux, Assiniboine, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Nakoda, Gros Ventre, Blackfeet, Chippewa Cree, Little Shell, Salish and Kootenai tribes. It was a remarkable two hours of testimony that, when fully considered, was a comprehensive lesson in reservation history, Indian law, and tribal governance. One important off-reservation witness also made his point. Midway through the hearing, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks spokesman testified against HB 241, and FWP’s opposition did not occur without approval from the Governor’s office. I recommend watching the hearing – it’s available on the Legislature’s web site at Montana (sliq.net).The FWP Committee convenes at the 15:00 mark, and testimony on HB 241 begins at the 16:13 mark.
The power of all this testimony was not lost on the committee. When we met two days later to vote on whether HB 241 should move forward to the House floor, a non-debatable motion was quickly made to proceed with the vote. While controversial bills usually provoke a party-line vote, seven Republicans, joined with six Democrats, and the bill went down, 13-5. The political story of HB 241 is that its potential for exposing an anti-tribal bias in the Republican party, underscored by the massive tribal opposition to the bill, motivated the Governor and Republican legislators to join with Democrats to kill this bill.