Montana tribes drive the road to sovereignty

  • WILDLIFE BEWARE: Highway 93

    Mark Matthews
  • Ruth Quequesah, tribal Office of SupportServices

    Mark Matthews
  • Map of Flathead Indian Reservation

    Diane Sylvain

PABLO, Mont. - Most roads leading to Indian reservations in Montana run through stark, lonely country. Things are different on the Flathead Reservation, home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Highway 93 is the busiest and most dangerous two-lane road in the state, and 56 miles of it traverses the reservation, beginning about 12 miles north of Missoula - the second largest city in Montana - and running up past Flathead Lake. Glacier National Park and the Big Mountain Ski Resort lie not far beyond.

Traffic can sometimes be brutal. In the mid-1990s, the Montana Department of Transportation proposed expanding 93 into a four-lane highway, and soon began work south of Missoula through the Bitterroot Valley.

But tribal officials opposed a similar plan for the reservation. They feared a faster road would entice more non-Indians to settle in the area, inflating land prices and pushing Native Americans out of the housing market. The expansion would also destroy more wetlands, they pointed out, further fragment wildlife habitat, and kill more animals crossing the highway.

The tribes forced the state and federal government into negotiations. When they finally reached a joint agreement, the resulting document promised an entirely new sort of highway.

"The design of the reconstructed highway," read the agreement, "is premised on the idea that the road is a visitor and that it should respond to and be respectful of the land and the Spirit of Place." The new highway plan sets out tough protections for wildlife, public safety and cultural resources.

It was a big win for the Salish and Kootenai, but it wasn't the first time the tribes had displayed their determination and influence. Over the last 30 years, the tribes have parlayed their growing wealth and their sought-after location into a series of legal victories and substantial political muscle. These days, they're considered among the most powerful tribes in the country.

A lost reservation

It wasn't always that way. In 1904, less than 50 years after the Salish and Kootenai tribes were confined to the 1.3 million-acre Flathead Reservation under the Hellgate Treaty, the Flathead Surplus Act carved up the reservation. It allotted 80- and 160-acre parcels of farm and ranchland to individual Indians, but most Indians chose land close to the mountains where wild game still roamed.

When the 1910 Homestead Act opened the unallotted reservation land to settlement by non-Indians, newcomers eagerly staked out the prime farmland in the middle of the valleys. To aid the mostly non-Indian farmers, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs built the Flathead Irrigation Project, but tribal members received little federal help.

"Before they opened up the reservation, I could go anywhere and see cattle and horses all over the reservation," said full-blood tribal member Paul Charlo in a 1947 interview. "Ever since they threw the reservation open, we all went broke and the stock disappeared. So the Indian just gave up his ambition and sold his stock and got poor."

Many Indians quickly lost their allotments, even though the government was supposed to keep the land in trust for 25 years. A number of laws allowed Indians to begin borrowing money and selling their land to pay debts. Merchants often confiscated the allotments and sold them to non-Indians.

As the farms prospered, non-Indian businesses expanded and small outposts turned into mercantile centers. Non-Indians snatched up recreation property on the shores of the 26-mile-long Flathead Lake. Whites soon surpassed Indians in population, and at one point, the tribes retained only 30 percent of the land within reservation boundaries. By the mid-1990s, non-Indians outnumbered tribal members more than 8-to-1.

Taking back the government

Yet the Flathead tribes didn't give up. When the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act allowed tribes to establish their own governments under constitutions and charters, the Salish and Kootenai were the first in the nation to do so.

The tribal constitution was not rooted in tribal tradition, since the Salish and Kootenai had never elected their leaders, says Ruth Quequesah, project analyst for the tribal Office of Support Services. "Chiefs traditionally served as leaders who were chosen by social consensus because they were worthy of the position," she says.

Even so, the elected tribal leaders began sticking up for the rights of their people. In the early 1950s, the tribes stopped the Army Corps of Engineers from developing a series of dams on the Flathead River that would have inundated much of the reservation.

The BIA continued to control the day-to-day affairs of the tribes, which didn't sit well with many Indians. "We didn't have any say in how things were run," says former tribal council member Joe McDonald, president of the Salish and Kootenai College. "There was no avenue for tribal input."

When President Richard Nixon's Indian Self-Determination Act allowed tribes to provide some of the services traditionally administered by the BIA, the Salish and Kootenai jumped at the opportunity. "It became obvious to the tribal council that our success was going to be based on a strong tribal government rather than the Bureau of Indian Affairs," says D. Fred Matt, chairman of the tribal council.

The tribes sent BIA administrators packing, one by one. Tribal members began managing law enforcement, justice, forestry, wildlife, and health and human services programs. Today, there is no Bureau of Indian Affairs presence on the reservation.

"The Salish and Kootenai were one of the leaders," says Bill Sinclair, director of the BIA's self-governance program. "They were one of the first large tribes to get into self-governance and they were active in the rule-making process." About 40 percent of the country's 558 recognized tribes are under contract to provide services the BIA formerly managed. "Some tribes take on a little bit, others a lot," Sinclair says.

The Flathead tribes, with a reservation population of 3,700, have taken their management responsibilities to heart. The tribal mission statement, printed on business cards carried by every employee, reads in part: "We will provide sound environmental stewardship to preserve, perpetuate, protect and enhance natural resources and ecosystems."

Since the tribes took over forestry management from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, timber harvest has decreased from 55 million board-feet per year to about 20 million board-feet. And when the dozen or so grizzly bears on the reservation migrate to the high ridges in the Mission Mountains to feed off cutworm moths, ladybugs and whitebark pine nuts, humans are banned from the area.

"We protect the grizzly bear no matter what it takes," says tribal wilderness manager Tom McDonald. "Same thing for the whitebark pine. It's the resource first, not people."

Full-court press

In the early 1970s, the tribes gained another political weapon: lawyers. A $38 million settlement with the federal government reimbursed the tribes for the millions of acres of traditional homeland they lost, and the tribe used the money to establish a legal department. A steady supply of income from timber sales and a lease for a hydroelectric dam has helped the tribes reinforce their legal staff.

The tribes sicced their lawyers on the state and anyone else whom they perceived as usurping their rights as a sovereign nation. Although their forebears had signed away most of their land in 1855, the Hellgate Treaty retained tribal ownership of the beds and banks of reservation waterways. This loophole gives tribal lawyers some powerful ammunition for modern-day legal maneuvers, and the Salish and Kootenai have shown no mercy in the courts.

  • In the mid-1970s, the tribes created such a fuss by taxing docks and making rules for shoreline use on their half of Flathead Lake that the city of Polson, situated at the southern end of the lake, sued the federal government to terminate the tribe's federal recognition. A judge threw out the case.
  • Ten years later, the tribes successfully applied to Congress to manage the Mission Valley Power Company, which serves the reservation. They also negotiated a second 50-year license with Montana Power Company for Kerr Dam and its power plant. Rent on the dam increased from $1 million a year to $14 million. In 2015, the tribes will begin operating and managing the facilities, with an option to buy.
  • When the power company challenged federal fish and wildlife regulations on the dam, the tribes intervened. The new owner of the dam recently agreed to pay the tribes $35 million to buy wetlands, plus $1.5 million per year for fish and wildlife protection.
  • In 1990, the tribes negotiated a deal with the state to oversee hunting, fishing, and recreation on the reservation. Non-Indians must now buy tribal permits for such activities. Five years later, the tribes won the right to set water-quality regulations on the reservation.
  • In 1995, the tribes kicked the Yellowstone Pipeline off the reservation because of repeated petroleum leaks that contaminated groundwater - despite the pipeline's million-dollar-plus offer to renew the 50-year lease.
  • And in 1999, the tribes settled a case with ARCO, which has legal responsibility for more than 100 years of mining pollution on the Clark Fork River. Although polluted areas are not located on the reservation, the tribes have treaty hunting and fishing rights in most of western Montana and a good chunk of Idaho. The tribes will use the $45 million to rehabilitate streams on the reservation.

Blocking the bobsled run

If state highway officials had acquainted themselves with this history, they would have realized they were in for a stiff fight over Highway 93.

At first, says former tribal council member Joe McDonald, the council was resigned to the fact that the state could force its "four-lane bobsled run" down its throat. But as McDonald and others researched the rules that administered federal highway money, they discovered that federal regulations required the state to work with local communities.

In 1997, the tribes entered negotiations with the state, armed with an executive order that says federal projects must defer to Indian tribes when they impact reservation land. The Federal Highway Administration withheld funding for the project until the two sides could reach a consensus.

Tribal Roads Program Manager Mike Brown empathizes with state engineers. "They originally saw the project as a piece of cake: Just crank up the bulldozers and away we go. I could see where they'd have trouble seeing what the tribes wanted to do."

The two sides eventually hired Jones and Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, based in Seattle, Wash., to help design a road. The firm has worked with many Indian tribes across the West, mostly on cultural centers.

"Our architects are attuned to looking at each place a little differently and coming up with unique solutions," says Charlie Scott, a senior associate with the firm. "You can't just apply a uniform standard to places like that."

Last December, the tribes, state and the Federal Highway Administration reached an agreement. The plan includes at least 42 wildlife crossings, including a $1 million wildlife overpass that grizzly bears can use to migrate from the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountain wildernesses into the Bitterroot Mountains. Highway signs will be written in Salish, Kootenai and English, and feature a logo of Coyote, the legendary hero of the tribes.

Construction designs use native materials such as quarried stone and rough-hewn timber, and disturbed areas will be replanted with indigenous plants.

Roadbeds will follow the contours of the land, with as little rock cutting as possible. Human development outside already established towns will be limited. And engineers believe the addition of passing lanes, turning lanes, climbing lanes, and wider shoulders should cut down on accidents.

"It's a new way of looking at things," says Loran Frazier, spokesman for the Montana Department of Transportation. "I am thrilled that we're moving forward, and I'm excited about the project. It started as negotiations and we have reached a consensus, as well as a great working relationship."

The new design will also cost about $50 million less than the original proposal.

The tribes don't have much time to enjoy this latest victory. Tribal leaders are negotiating with the state over water rights on the reservation, and they're busy buying back private lands lost to the 1910 Homestead Act. Tribal ownership has increased from about 49 percent of the reservation in 1995, to about 66 percent today.

To many tribal members, these projects are all directed towards a larger goal. Ruth Quequesah says that of all the tribes in Montana, the Salish and Kootenai have the best chance of achieving total financial freedom. "To me," she says, "not taking any federal funds would be the ultimate expression of sovereignty."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.


  • Salish and Kootenai tribes, P.O. Box 278, Pablo, MT 59855 (406/675-2700).

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mark Matthews

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