Elinor Smith

HELENA -- The Senate voted 36-to-14 Monday to advance a bill that would set up a memorial highway through the Blackfeet Reservation in honor of the tribe’s late chief, Earl Old Person. 

Senate Bill 120 was initially tabled in hearing last week after Republican Senator Barry Usher, who represents Yellowstone County, said that lawmakers had an informal rule that memorial highways be reserved to honor members of the military or police officers who died in the line of duty. Others who voted against the bill said they had fiscal concerns. According to the bill’s fiscal note, the memorial highway would cost a state special revenue fund just over $4,000.

The memorial highway would stretch on Highway 89 between the Canadian border and its intersection with Highway 2 in Glacier County. Democratic Senator Susan Webber, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, sponsored the bill and said in his life and his nearly 70 years in leadership roles for the tribe, Old Person was an important connection between Native American culture and the rest of the country.

“I am one of the greatest supporters of our law enforcement, our public safety people, because I know what they have to go through and I have no argument with that. But the issue is, is that this man, he stood for the Native Peoples of Montana. He stood for Montana, he stood for our country,” Webber said. 

Twenty Republicans, including several who voted to table the bill in committee, joined all 16 of the Democrats in the Senate in voting for the bill. Great Falls Republican Wendy McKamey was one of the Republicans to vote yes and explained the history of the decision making process for selecting such memorials.

“It was established that the honor [of memorial highways] would go -- would be restricted after that. And I wondered at the time if we were restricting it too tightly. And I really, truly believe in this case that we are, because this individual was a leader in our state,” McKamey said. 

The bill will be voted on one more time in the Senate and if it passes a second time, will move to the House. 

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.