Montana is the only state in the nation where the percentage of Indigenous elected lawmakers exceeds that of the state’s overall Indigenous population, potentially giving Native Americans a bigger voice in their government.
There are 12 tribes in Montana living on, and off, 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 seem to have been marginalized 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 was a draft joint resolution to “investigate alternatives to the American Indian reservation system.” Resolution sponsor Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, decided not to follow through with the introduction after public outcry.
In response, members of the Montana American Indian Caucus, comprised of 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 Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, Salish and Kootenai, who introduced both bills, and 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 is 6.6%. Meanwhile, the state Legislature includes 11 tribal members, about 7.3% of legislators.
“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 first Native representative, Dolly Smith Cusker Akers, was elected into office in 1932, but the Montana Legislature only began recording Indigenous legislators in 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 proportion of Native population. Only one other state, Oregon, also has legislative 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 significant Native representation.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states 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 know the exact number of states that currently have such caucuses in place.
The Montana American Indian Caucus is composed of 11 members, including 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 session’s halfway mark, despite differences in party priorities.
The 2023 Montana American Indian Caucus includes 11 members:
- Sen. Mike Fox, D-Hayden, Gro Ventre, Assiniboine and Chippewa Cree, Hays
- Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte, Crow and Lakota
- Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, Turtle Mountain Chippewa
- Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, Salish and Kootenai
- Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, Blackfeet
- Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, Northern Cheyenne
- Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, Assiniboine and Sioux
- Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, Crow
- Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr., D-Browning, Blackfeet
- Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, Blackfeet
- Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, Chippewa Cree and Assinaboine
Morigeau and Hawk both were elected in 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 wants, 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 bring forward only legislation that centers around tribal communities.
“I obviously care about the health and welfare of our entire state,” he said.
DYNAMICS OF THE CAUCUS
The Indigenous caucus mostly leans Democrat, while two of its 11 members, including the caucus chair, represent the Republican Party Politically, it would seem the caucus has an uphill battle working with the state 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 torpedoed 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.
Knudsen is regarded as the most conservative member 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 1,000-plus bills and assigning them to appropriate committees and sitting in for the speaker of the House when he is unavailable.
Knudsen represents House District 34, which 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.
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 necessary to make the right decision for all of Indian Country. For example, 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 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’
Windy Boy is one of the most 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 that 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 going to impact Indian Country is for the best interest of Indian Country,” Windy Boy said.
This story was updated March 16, 2023, to correct an error. Montana’s first Native state representative was Dolly Smith Cusker Akers, who was elected in 1932.
This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.
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