Montana capitol
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes continue to monitor a suite of bills in the Montana Legislature that could have deep impacts in law enforcement on the Flathead Indian Reservation. 

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Through legislation, Lake County, within which two-thirds of the reservation resides, is seeking reimbursement for its policing under a federal public law agreement, and the county says it may withdraw from the agreement if funds aren’t appropriated.

Specifically, the county is asking for $2.5 million for two years through the legislation, Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron said. 

The bill, House Bill 479, underwent a second reading in the state Senate Wednesday where it was referred to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. 

“So we’re just kind of waiting to see what happens,” Barron said. “If it ends up even being passed, if it doesn’t pass, we’ve already done a resolution to get out of Public Law 280. So if we don’t get any funding, that resolution takes effect May 28.”

Barron added that a law passed during the 2021 legislative session would give Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte six months to give the county a proclamation to get out of the law enforcement agreement. Should the county pull out of the agreement, policing jurisdiction on the Flathead reservation would fall to tribal law enforcement services, the state of Montana and the federal government.

The tribe has yet to make an official comment, however some council members spoke on the subject during an April 7 council meeting.

Carole Lankford said representatives from the tribe recently met with the U.S. Department of the Interior about the subject and discussed what could be done to help the tribe if Lake County does withdraw law enforcement services.

She said she’s seen actions taken by the Lake County courts that make her feel uneasy, and almost feels the tribe should let the county continue to move forward with its withdrawal.

“That’s my personal belief and I don’t usually bring my personal beliefs up, but I watched some things in the court, Lake County Court, that kind of makes me nervous. The court doesn’t seem to recognize the effects of mental health issues on people, she said. “And that’s a lot of people and they’re getting sentenced to huge sentences.”

Some council members also met with Montana’s assistant attorney general about the issue, and James “Bing” Matt is hoping things will get better. 


“This is getting to be quite an issue for both this county, state and the tribe,” Matt said. “Hopefully down the line here if things were going to be better about what’s going on with that. Right now, it’s still kind of up in the air and still being dealt with in the Legislature.”

The last council member to comment was Jennifer Finley. She said the tribes continue to meet on the issue and discuss what the options are, how departments feel about it and what they are capable of doing.

“I personally feel like we always know what’s best for people.” Finley said. “I think it’s an opportunity for us to really talk about how we can best serve our people instead of criminalizing people, how we can help people, how we can help rehabilitate people. So that’s something I’m really interested in.”

Overall, the relationship between the county and the tribe is “pretty good,” Barron said. 

“A lot of issues we work well together on, and other issues we kind of knock heads,” he said. “It’s just unfortunately the way the different jurisdictions are set up.”

Public Law 280, which was invoked by both Lake County and the Flathead tribes giving the county criminal jurisdiction over the reservation, was signed into law by Congress in 1953 and gives participating entities authority to assume criminal jurisdiction over tribal reservations. While some states’ participation in the law was mandatory, Montana’s is voluntary.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are the only tribal government in Montana that voluntarily opted in. 

At a hearing in Helena last month, some tribal members commented on their opposition to the reimbursement bills. 

“There is an opposition to PL 280 from the tribal community,” said CSKT member Lexx Pierre at a committee hearing. “We struggle to reclaim authority within our boundaries due to the overreach of PL 280.”

During a recent meeting of the state Legislature’s American Indian Caucus, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, voiced his concerns about the possible passage of the reimbursement bill, worrying that other Montana tribes would want to follow in the steps of the CSKT due to the amount of funding that is in the bill. 

“If that goes through, I see a trend that might be happening with other tribes that are gonna try to step up and become a PL 280, if they see that kind of funding,” said Running Wolf. “It ain’t beneficial at all for tribes to go in that direction.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, said the influx of a Native population to the Flathead reservation has influenced the level of Lake County’s law enforcement work, resulting in a large portion of the county’s budget being spent on policing and prosecuting efforts. The county views this as a problem because they say they can no longer afford it. 

It is unclear if Read was referring to an influx in population since CSKT voluntarily came under PL280 in 1963. The population of Lake County has grown by 5.5% since the 2010 census.

An estimated 5,500 tribal members live on the Flathead reservation. 

The total income tax revenue budget for the county’s 2023 fiscal year is approximately $20.6 million, while the public safety and dispatch services budget is about $6.2 million, according to the Lake County finance and budget director. That is about 30% of the income tax revenue being spent on providing law enforcement services.

2020 survey from the Montana Board of Crime Control found that there were 28 full-time sheriffs officers employed in Lake County, equaling 1.23 officers per 1,000 people. 

Thomas Woolworth, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, is a board member for the National Native American Law Enforcement Association. Woolworth worked as a Bureau of Indian Affairs supervisory special agent for 25 years.

He said he couldn’t speak to whether PL 280 has had a positive or negative impact since it was enacted, but recognizes there has been opposition to it. 

“A lot of folks have indicated that Public Law 280 has pretty much utilized its usefulness with regards to relations with sovereign nations and tribal governments across the United States,” Woolworth said.

JoVonne Wagner contributed reporting.

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