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This story was originally co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT.  Used with permission. 

Montana is the only state in the nation where the percentage of Indigenous elected lawmakers exceeds the state’s overall Indigenous population, potentially giving Native Americans a bigger voice in their government.

There are 12 tribes in Montana living on seven reservations, making Native Americans the largest minority population in the state. However, raising that voice can be difficult. In fact, despite being iconic to the state’s image, Native Americans and their issues seemed to have been trivialized in recent years.

For instance, early in the 2023 state legislative session, non-Native lawmakers raised concerns by introducing, or considering, legislative bills that could be described as anti-Indigenous. One of them was a draft joint resolution to “investigate alternatives to the American Indian reservation system.” Resolution sponsor, Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, decided not to follow through with the introduction due to public outcry.

In response, members of the Montana American Indian Caucus, comprised of the Indigenous legislators, offered a couple of bills to increase awareness of the state’s tribes and their history with the state, including one requiring schools to teach more Native history. Both measures were dismissed quickly. 

“I’ve always known that that bill is an uphill battle,” said Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, Salish and Kootenai, who introduced both bills, including another that would have created Indigenous Peoples Day to replace Columbus Day. “What we’ve accomplished is education, and I think making and forcing people to kind of look themselves in the mirror and talk about these things or even go look it up, right? It just forces people to do a little bit of research.”

Still, the Indigenous caucus works to help solidify the voices of its members. Montana is one of the few states with such a group, which caucus members say helps promote Native American issues for their non-Native colleagues. 

‘“We are a part of the state’s identity,” Morigeau said.

According to the U.S. Census, Montana’s Indigenous population sits at 6.6%. Meanwhile, the state Legislature has 11, about 7.3%, tribal members. 

”That is why it’s good for basically the reservations of the tribes to have representation,” said caucus chair Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby. “The greatest benefit is being able to bring something back home, or create a mechanism that works or create a relationship between the state and the tribes.”

The state’s earliest recording of an Indigenous legislator dates back to 1989.

Compared to other states, the Montana Legislature is one of the few to meet parity with its Native population, meaning the Indigenous representation in the lawmaking body is equivalent, or in this case exceeds, the state’s Native population. Only one other state, Oregon, also has parity with a smaller Native population of just under 2%, according to the 2020 census. 

Other states with significant Indigenous populations, such as Alaska, which recently elected its first Native woman into its House of Representatives, still lack Native representation. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 19 states that have dedicated committees that focus on Native affairs. However, some sources linked to the website’s list are not active so it is difficult to tell the exact number of states that currently have these caucuses in place.

The Montana American Indian Caucus is composed of 11 members with four senators and seven representatives working at the capitol building. The caucus managed to get a number of bills passed through the Senate and the House floors by the half-way mark, despite differences in party priorities.

The 2023 Montana American Indian Caucus includes 11 members: 

  • Sen. Mike Fox, Gro Ventre, Assiniboine and Chippewa Cree, Hays
  • Rep. Donavon Hawk, Crow and Lakota, Butte
  • Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Culbertson 
  • Sen. Shane Morigeau, Salish and Kootenai, Missoula
  • Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, Blackfeet, Browning
  • Sen. Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne, Busby
  • Rep. Frank Smith, Assiniboine and Sioux, Poplar
  • Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, Crow, Crow Agency
  • Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr., Blackfeet, Browning
  • Sen. Susan Webber, Blackfeet, Browning
  • Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, Chippewa Cree and Assinaboine, Box Elder

Sen. Morigeau and Rep. Hawk both were elected by off-reservation districts that include larger Montana cities. Morigeau spoke with MTFP and ICT about the fight for equality both on and off the reservation.

“​​I have an obligation to represent my community and my district,” said Morigeau, whose Missoula County district is heavily Democratic. “But I will say that I think that my district greatly cares about having that representation in our Legislature, and being more representative of what Montana looks like, even in our urban areas.”

Morigeau’s priorities also reflect the priorities that he believes his district in Missoula want, such as helping and protecting families and addressing voting equity issues.  

However, Morigeau said that his sponsored bills don’t mean that he and the caucus only bring forward legislation that centers around tribal communities.

“I obviously care about the health and welfare of our entire state,” he said.

DYNAMICS OF CAUCUS

The Indigenous caucus mostly leans Democrat, while two of its 11 members represent the Republican party, including the caucus chair. Politically, it would seem the caucus has a constant uphill battle working with the Montana Legislature’s Republican supermajority.

A recurring topic that’s been brought to the Legislature in four previous sessions is the establishment and recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day as a state holiday, replacing Columbus Day. 

This time around, Morigeau carried Senate Bill 141, which was tabled in committee. The Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee chair said Morigeau killed the bill when he referenced documented violence committed by Christopher Columbus. An attempt to bring the bill back on the Senate floor also failed.

“I think some people see getting rid of Columbus as like getting rid of white culture,” Morigeau said. “It’s never been about that. It’s the person individually who was a bad person, but trying to be more inclusive in our country and in our state was important to me.” 

Small said the caucus allows its members to stay informed on the status of its sponsored bills and also provides members with a space to invite and collaborate with the rest of the Legislature.

“If you are trying to gain support, no better way than to work with them,” Small said. “The caucus is a good entity that looks out for people to get on your side. Right. There is a collective amount of votes that you’re getting there.”

The caucus still manages to work together supporting or opposing bills, but some strategies don’t necessarily receive every caucus member’s approval. 

Rep. Knudsen is the most conservative of the AIC and is not as involved with the group’s weekly meetings. However, she has also been elected as the House of Representative speaker pro tempore for the session, a role at the statehouse that she describes as significantly demanding.

Her duties include reading the 1,000 plus bills and assigning them to appropriate committees that pass through the Legislature and sitting in for the speaker of the House when he is unavailable.

Knudsen represents district 34, an area that encompasses a few small towns on the Hi-Line and a portion of the Fort Peck Reservation. 

“Rural and eastern Montana issues are the same on and off the reservation. They don’t change, they aren’t dichotomous,” Knudsen said.

Rep. Running Wolf said the caucus is doing well.

“It is still pretty strong on pulling both Republican and Democrat votes for different issues, and sometimes we have to leverage them to help Native American issues throughout the state of Montana, both urban, rural, and on and off reservations, too,” he said. 

Running Wolf said that debates between parties within the caucus are needed to make the right decision for all of Indian Country. For example, the bills that address an Indian tuition waiver or the missing, murdered indigenous peoples crisis are not tied to parties but are statewide and national issues. 

The caucus meets once a week, and members encourage other representatives, senators, lobbyists and organizations to come in and speak on issues or bills.

Democratic House Minority Leader, Kim Abbott, D-Helena, who is not Native, said the caucus has done well communicating with the larger Legislature. 

“We have strong relationships within our caucus, and it’s just a powerful group of very experienced, talented legislators,”  Abbott said. “My sense is the American Indian Caucus has built a good community with each other. I think that they communicate in a transparent and effective and consistent way across partisanship.”

‘THE MAIN GOAL’ 

Rep. Windy Boy is one of the seasoned legislators in the caucus; his first term was in 2003. He has sat both in the Senate and the House during his tenure and said the caucus has changed through the years.

“It’s more cohesive. I was like my own person before,” he said. “The last four or five sessions, we have had a lot of these weekly meetings, and we are more cohesive now.”

Windy Boy reflected on the long journey that American Indians have had in the country and noted how it was only in 1924 that American Indians were granted citizenship by Congress.

“At the end of the day, the main goal for us to accomplish anything is to support each other and to make sure that the best policy that’s gonna impact Indian Country is for the best interest of Indian Country,” Windy Boy said. 

About the Author: JoVonne Wagner is a member of the Blackfeet Nation located in Northwestern Montana. She was born and raised on the reservation, where she says she experienced and lived through all the amazing things about her home, but also witnessed all the negative aspects of rez life. Wagner is an alumni of NPR'S Next Generation Radio. JoVonne interned for Buffalo's Fire and she recently graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism.

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