(UM Legislative News Service) A record number of Native lawmakers are serving in Montana’s Legislature this session, and they’re pushing for bills covering issues from language preservation to missing persons reporting to the reauthorization of Medicaid expansion.
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, is serving in his ninth legislative session. When Windy Boy was a freshman legislator and in the Montana American Indian Caucus, there were just four members.
Today, caucus meetings regularly draw 25 attendees and Montana leads the nation in the percentage of American Indian representation in a state legislature, with 11 tribal members, roughly 7 percent of the Legislature.
“We’ve been here for centuries and centuries, and we’re catching on to this game,” Windy Boy said with a smile.
Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, has served in six prior legislative sessions and teaches Native American political science at Bighorn Community College. She’s happy to see Montana’s American Indian Caucus grow.
The number of Native legislators is on par with the percentage of Native Montanans. This population has historically been underrepresented in lawmaking bodies. Barriers like disenfranchisement and institutional racism have impeded Native American rights and political activity since colonization, Stewart Peregoy said.
For Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr., D-Browning, who was a U.S. Marine, an actor in Canada, worked for Herzog Railroad Services and was most recently an administrator for the Blackfeet Veterans’ Alliance, running for office wasn’t a question.
“When a challenge like this comes up, I have to take it,” Weatherwax said.
Stewart Peregoy, whose grandmother, Katie Yarlott Stewart, pushed for women’s right to vote even before the government recognized her — a Native American — as a citizen, it’s about keeping an eye out for efforts to disenfranchise minority populations.
“I’m always watchful, making sure that we don’t step back, that we’re moving forward,” Stewart Peregoy said.
This session, several big issues Stewart Peregoy and the rest of the caucus are watching include missing and endangered indigenous women, education and voting rights.
The Montana American Indian Caucus meets weekly during lunchtime, and often, legislators and lobbyists come to discuss bills and issues with the group.
At a recent meeting, Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, asked caucus members for thoughts on a bill she was drafting to change voting in Montana to all-mail ballots. It’s something some Republicans pushed for in the 2017 special election and Custer wondered if there was any version of the bill the caucus would support.
Stewart Peregoy began shaking her head before Custer finished talking. Stewart Peregoy answered that in the last election, a large number of voters on reservations visited satellite voting offices and that some homes on the Crow reservation don’t have physical mail addresses to receive ballots.
“So an all-mail ballot initiative, in my opinion, would be a barrier and you would not see the turnout,” Stewart Peregoy said.
Stewart Peregoy said the caucus would take some time to think about the issue.
Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said in an interview after the meeting she isn’t concerned about all-mail voting in her district. It works on the Blackfeet reservation, she said, but this disagreement highlights an important point. Native legislators bring wide-ranging experiences and needs from their constituents to their service. Webber said she understands Stewart Peregoy’s hesitation.
In a case settled in 2014, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, the Montana Secretary of State, and Blaine, Bighorn and Rosebud counties were sued for failing to provide satellite voting offices on the Crow, Fort Belknap and and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
Missing Persons Reports
In the first week of the 2019 session, Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, introduced HB 20 to the House Judiciary Committee, which would change laws related to the reporting of missing children.
“It’s a simple bill with huge consequences,” Peppers said.
The bill would require all state, county and municipal officers to submit information about missing child reports to the missing children information program. It would also allow any law enforcement office, including tribal offices, to make file a missing persons report, no matter in which county the child went missing.
“I have been one of those children, I have been taken,” Peppers said during the debate on the bill in the full House.
The bill passed its first House vote 100-0.
Peppers has another bill coming that aims to address missing and murdered indigenous women in Montana. It’s called Hanna’s Act, named after Hanna Harris, a Lame Deer woman who was murdered in 2013. One of its provisions would have the Department of Justice employ a missing persons specialist to help with all cases and to work closely with with local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement.
The issue is also in the national spotlight. Just this month, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Indian affairs criticizing the handling of the case of 14-year-old Henny Scott of Lame Deer, who was found murdered in December. It took 13 days for law enforcement to notify the public that a missing persons report had been filed.
“I am troubled by the trend of inadequate responses to these types of situations,” Tester wrote. “We cannot hope to solve the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic if we do not address how law enforcement initially responds in these cases.”
Hanna’s Act is awaiting its first committee hearing.
Native legislators are also focused on education legislation this session. Windy Boy has drafted a number of bills aimed at preserving Indigenous languages in the state. HB 33 would extend the Indian Preservation Program that was enacted in 2013. Windy Boy said out of 7,000 enrolled members of his tribe, about 100 are fluent in Cree language.
“If we see the loss of our Native languages, we’re going to see the extinction of that history from our land,” Windy Boy said.
Meanwhile, Stewart Peregoy has introduced HB 18, which would increase a school district’s funding to help teach English learners. It would create programs in schools for students who have low English proficiency. While this bill would help anyone learning English as a second language in Montana schools, Stewart Peregoy said the most concentrated need is on reservations.
“The difference here is that these kids are not newcomers, they are born in the state of Montana but are impacted by a language other than English,” Stewart Peregoy said.
Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, is the Indian caucus’s only Republican member, and he’s been helping draft the Republican-backed Medicaid expansion reauthorization bill that is yet to be introduced. Small said he wants to make sure Montanans living on reservations can still get coverage through the program, which offers health care to low-income Montanans.
Work requirements, which have been a widely supported by conservatives as an addition to Medicaid, would make that harder, Small said. A report from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry shows unemployment is substantially higher on reservations than other parts of the state.
“How can you get around the fact that there’s no available way for these people to work?” Small said.
Stewart Peregoy said it can be hard for Native legislators to stay on top of every bill that might affect their constituents. She said she’s thankful to have more professionals lobbying on Native issues this session than last time.
Western Native Voice is one such group, watching bills related to Native communities. The nonprofit operates year round and aims to increase political engagement and advocacy. A few members are in Helena and work with the Indian caucus on issues, attend committee hearings and livestream hearings and interviews on Facebook.
The group’s spokesperson, Ta’jin Perez, said he thinks it’s powerful for Montanans to visit the Capitol and see Native faces, especially because of the example they’re setting for future generations.
“We believe this sends a strong statement to young people that they do belong here. They shouldn’t feel out of place,” Perez said.
Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.