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Alert readers of Montana Free Press will notice that, week to week, whatever new melodies the reporters are singing to explore this state’s current events, there is an old bass line thrumming beneath the coverage: the Montana Constitution of 1972.  

What gave the university system the standing to challenge the Legislature’s “permitless carry” law on college campuses? How will the attorney general’s edict banning the teaching of “critical race theory” jibe with every Montana public school student’s guarantee of Indian Education for All? On what basis could a law office in Sidney sue the state, arguing that nondiscrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status prevents the firm from providing its employees and clientele a “clean and healthful environment”?

The short answer to all of the above is that 50 years ago a tractor salesman, a car dealer, a graduate student, a beekeeper, some homemakers, lawyers, ranchers and ministers were elected by their neighbors to assemble at the Capitol in Helena to write a new Constitution. And for the last few months the reporters and editors of Montana Free Press and I, along with a camera operator provided by Montana State University, have been conducting oral history interviews with the delegates and staff of the Montana Constitutional Convention of 1972 as well as Charles S. Johnson, the reporter who covered the “Con-Con” for the Associated Press.  These interviews will be free for anyone to view in perpetuity — in person or online — in the archives of MSU’s library.  

Please join MTFP editor-in-chief John S. Adams and me on Tuesday, March 22, at 7 p.m., either in person at MSU in Bozeman or via livestream as we unveil a stirring highlight reel of those interviews and discuss the ’72 Constitution and its legacy with delegate Mae Nan Ellingson, the convention’s executive director (and former U.S. senator) Max Baucus, former Gov. Marc Racicot, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and the aforementioned Mr. Johnson — though we will be calling him Dr. Johnson after the veteran reporter receives his honorary doctorate from MSU this May.

Sarah Vowell

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of Montanans who have filed to run for the state Legislature this year, across 100 open House seats and 26 open Senate seats. We broke that number down earlier this week with an interactive graphic showing how many of those districts are likely to see competitive primary and general election contests (hint: not all of them).

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Character Study 

For Matthew Bell, engaging with his Aaniiih and Nakoda heritage has become an indispensable part of his self-identity and sense of place in the world. But his academic focus on Native American languages and culture has reached far beyond the tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. As a student at the University of Montana, he took part in classes on Salish, Nakoda, Blackfeet and Arapaho languages and focused his graduate work on Native American language revitalization. And in recent years, Bell imparted his knowledge to Missoula students as an English and Native American studies teacher at Big Sky and Willard Alternative high schools.

In January, Bell joined the ranks of Montana’s Office of Public Instruction in a new language and culture specialist position, in which he’ll help guide the way public schools teach and reflect the heritage of the state’s Indigenous peoples. Bell will also play a key role in overseeing the Montana Indian Language Preservation program’s transition from the Department of Commerce to OPI, a move the Legislature proposed and approved last year. Responding to emailed questions from MTFP last week, Bell wrote that he’ll be focused on the development of Native language instruction materials for teachers and school administrators across the state.

“We seek to help teachers of language and other content areas include more understanding of Montana’s heritage languages and cultures via online and in-person connections,” Bell said of his division’s role more broadly. “We hope to be a promoter of cultural knowledge and ways of knowing in ways that are appropriate and respectful in collaboration with the tribes of Montana.”

That mission is important to Bell on both a professional and personal level. As an educator, he said, language instruction offers students not only a greater cultural awareness, but a deeper understanding of the natural world in which the languages were developed. And from his personal experience, Bell believes that recognizing and promoting the languages of Montana tribes, including his own, is of the “utmost importance” for young Montanans developing their own sense of self.

“There are many other people out there who can benefit from a reconnection to their language that has survived on this land since time immemorial,” Bell said. “Given what we know about current mental health trends in the U.S. and Montana in particular, it is imperative to give students the best access to positive self-identity.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“Speaking of the Ides of March, anyone who has a sword under their cloak right now, drop it.”

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton

Bedey made the quip while chairing a joint meeting of the Montana Legislature’s Education Interim and Interim Education Budget committees March 15. The moment of Roman-themed levity punctuated a somber conversation about an unfunded mandate in preschool-level special education. Under federal law, school districts are required to provide services for preschool-age students with disabilities. But state law prohibits districts from claiming per-pupil state funding for those students. Bedey told fellow lawmakers that they must address the issue, adding that if districts are legally bound to do something, “we ought to have money that follows that.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Quiz ✅

It’s time to test your listening skills on Season 2 of our Shared State podcast.* Anyone who sends in correct answers to the three questions below will be entered to win MTFP swag: hats, mugs, sweaters and more. Let’s get started. 

Episode 2: Water is for fighting

1. How much of its city water supply does Butte get from the Big Hole River?

2. Name one physical characteristic of an Arctic grayling, as described by Montana FWP biologist Jim Olson.

3. What animal does reporter Shaylee Ragar mention for its ability to naturally support water storage?

Submit your answers using this form by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday, March 21, and we’ll randomly select one winner from the correct entries to send some sweet MTFP gear. Special shout out to Archie and Merry of Corvallis, winners of last week’s quiz competition! 

*Yes, we know, there are transcripts available to just look up the answers. We trust you to listen first and verify later. Have fun!

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — When I reviewed Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ wolf dashboard on Tuesday, the close of the 2021-2022 wolf hunting and trapping season, I was surprised to find that the total number of wolves killed was down quite a bit from last season, when hunters killed a record 329 wolves. This year the total was 272, even as the Legislature had expanded the trapping season and legalized neck snares, bait hunting and night hunting on private land. Helena Independent Record reporter Tom Kuglin takes a look.

Mara Silvers — For anyone who’s concerned about how minors fare in the criminal legal system, this ProPublica collaborative reporting project about juvenile detention in Louisiana might shed new light on the problem. For those who don’t yet have the issue on their social and political radar, this article is well worth the time and focus. 

Alex Sakariassen — Fifty years ago, Montana’s Constitutional Convention directed public schools to promote the heritage and culture of the state’s tribal nations. But after all those decades, what does Indian Education for All look like in today’s classrooms? The Missoulian offered up one example this week with a feature on students at Chief Charlo Elementary learning about the intricacies of Indian sign language, the Salish language, and the history of the Missoula area’s Indigenous people.

Eric Dietrich — In part because the 2020 U.S. census was conducted in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s plenty of room to question how accurately it captured America’s demographics. National Public Radio has a good report here on count-quality statistics released by the Census Bureau last week, figures that indicate the 2020 census probably undercounted Native American residents.

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.