Montana’s anti-Indigenous politics aren’t going away

The now-dead proposal to ‘investigate’ reservations was neither the beginning or the end of combative attitudes towards tribal nations in the state.


In early January, the Montana State Legislature’s 2023 session started with a bang. That first week, Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, brought a draft resolution calling on Congress to “investigate alternatives to the reservation system,” using language rife with misinformation and the stereotypes typical of anti-Indigenous groups. After pushback from the state’s bipartisan American Indian Caucus, tribal nations and his own constituents, Regier said he would not introduce the legislation, adding that it had been written by a local constituent (Regier did not respond to a request for comment from HCN).

Montana Sen. Keith Regier (R-Kalispell), appears on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 24, 2023. In the first week of the 2023 session, Regier brought a draft resolution calling on Congress to “investigate alternatives to the reservation system.”
Eliza Wiley/Montana Free Press

The incident — the latest episode in a long history of anti-tribal sovereignty activity in Montana — emphasized the proximity between anti-Indigenous organizers and state legislators. Montana has Indigenous state lawmakers across the political spectrum, and a history of political independence. But with Republicans holding a historic supermajority in the House and Senate as well as controlling the governorship and state executive offices, Native-rights advocates are concerned the partys growing hard-right faction could welcome further iterations of the anti-tribal sovereignty stances represented in the draft resolution.

“I have not seen anything so overtly anti-Indian” while working on legislative issues in Montana, said Ta’jin Perez (Totonac Indigenous), deputy director for Western Native Voice, of the resolution. “Indigenous people, who have faced unfathomable challenges and harms for generations, don’t deserve this kind of treatment from their elected representatives.”

“I have not seen anything so overtly anti-Indian...” 

Organized anti-Indigenous activism in Montana and beyond has gone through multiple permutations over the last half-century. In the 1970s, Flathead Valley resident Del Palmer, a non-Native, started the group Flathead Residents Earning Equality, in response to having to pay a $5 recreational permit to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. A newspaper profile detailed Palmer’s racist ideology, noting that he believed “the reservation system had outlived its life span” — the same argument that appears in Regier’s draft resolution. Co-opting the language of civil rights and equality, the group folded into Montanans Opposing Discrimination in the 1970s, then All Citizens Equal, before morphing into today’s iteration, the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA).

Now a national group, CERA’s stated goal is to eliminate federal Indian policy altogether. The group insists it is not “anti-Indian,” though it has called tribal sovereignty a “myth,” and its legal branch recently filed amicus briefs against tribal sovereignty interests in pivotal U.S. Supreme Court cases, including Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, a challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Navajo Nation’s water rights case. In Montana alone, CERA has helped organize political, community and legal opposition to tribes over land returns, water rights, bison management, Native voting rights and more, dismissing tribal assertions of sovereignty as “takeovers” and regularly raising accusations of voting fraud.

“There’s this narrative that the anti-Indigenous movement has stoked forever about voting fraud on reservations,” said Travis McAdam, project director at Montana Human Rights Network. That dovetailed neatly with conservative paranoia around election fraud during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Elaine Willman, board member and former chair of Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), speaks with Chris Kortlander at the 2018 “New Code of the West” conference in Whitefish, Montana. Ammon Bundy was also a featured speaker at the conference.

Montana Human Rights Network has detailed CERA’s strategy, showing how it seeks out legislators in order to influence policy. In 2014, for example, Regier and two other state legislators spoke alongside CERA board member Elaine Willman at a meeting opposing the Flathead water compact, a controversial agreement that ratified the water rights of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, resolved water claims and provided funding for water infrastructure, among other things. A CERA conference in Kalispell the next year featured then-Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder as a speaker.  And a 2018 conference of far-right activists, CERA members and Sagebrush Rebels, including the Bundys, also attracted state legislators from Montana and Washington. One of the speakers argued that the effort to return ancestral lands to tribal nations was part of a conspiracy by “global elites” to control more land. Overall, groups like CERA seek to systematically reduce the political power of tribal nations in the U.S., whether through policy, the legal system or public opinion. And they have been effective: Anti-Indigenous prejudice ran rampant during the return of the National Bison Range and the Flathead water compact negotiations, delaying both efforts for years with misinformation and anti-Native talking points.

The same ideology appeared in Regier’s January draft resolution. This ideology and those who share “try to undermine Indian people and tribes to make them look dysfunctional and chaotic to justify a means to an end, which in my opinion is to try and extract more resources,” said Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, a tribal citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and a member of the bipartisan American Indian Caucus. “It’s based in assimilation and termination-era thought processes that, in my opinion, are still here.”

The draft resolution may not be introduced as legislation, but to Morigeau it represents the attitude that some Montana legislators maintain toward tribes and Indigenous people. For example, in 2021 Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, repeated the well-worn myth that tribes and Native people do not pay taxes while voting against a bill to allow licensed tribal governments or businesses to participate in the state’s legalized recreational cannabis market. The bill also supported tribal mental health and substance use programs, among other things. And, as reported by the Associated Press the same year, lawmakers with the American Indian Caucus expressed concern over the continued tabling of Native-focused initiatives, including bills that would have established Indigenous Peoples’ Day and a missing persons response team training grant program. They also criticized the reduced Indigenous representation on the Montana Human Rights Commission and two state-level public health positions that serve Native communities.

 “It’s based in assimilation and termin-ation-era thought processes that, in my opinion, are still here.”

This session, Native rights advocates are keeping an eye on a number of bills, including attempts to revise the Flathead water compact and allow big game hunting on tribal lands, as well as ballot restrictions that could impact Native voters. The American Indian Caucus has put forward its own bills around pay transparency, Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Indigenous language programs. Last Friday, Morigeau introduced an expansion of Indian Education for All that would provide training for legislators on Native affairs.

Perez said that his organization, Western Native Voice, will put its full support behind the bill. “There is an overwhelming lack of understanding — and in some cases I would venture to say intentional misunderstanding — of how sovereignty works and interacts between tribes and states.”

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor for High Country News. She has placed in the Native American Journalists Association’s Native Media Awards in the category of Best Coverage of Native America three times. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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