Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

July 7, 2011

Policy Institute works to empower Native Americans to get involved

By Lailani Upham

Missoula lawyer and former CSKT tribal attorney, Pat Smith, who is a member of the Assiniboine tribe, leads a discussion on "Indian Voting History and Current Trends and the U.S. Census." Smith explained and showcased data on the impact the Indian vote has had on the most recent elections. (Lailani Upham photo)
Missoula lawyer and former CSKT tribal attorney, Pat Smith, who is a member of the Assiniboine tribe, leads a discussion on "Indian Voting History and Current Trends and the U.S. Census." Smith explained and showcased data on the impact the Indian vote has had on the most recent elections. (Lailani Upham photo)

ARLEE — The Policy Institute held a two-day leadership seminar series on Indian Country issues last week at the Heart View Center here.

The event designed specifically for Native American participants was a first attempt by the institute to focus on Indian issues, politics and to engage and build relationships within Indian country, says former Vice Chair of the Montana Public Service Commission and founder of the Montana Human Rights Network and The Policy Institute, Ken Toole.

The Policy Institute, based in Helena, describes itself as a blend of authoritative research and hands-on political engagement in efforts to create public policy centered on economic justice, fair taxation, corporate accountability and environmental responsibility.

Presentations and discussions included themes regarding Indian voting history and current trends, and bridging the urban and rural divide of Natives in Montana.

The institute has a mission of working toward changing public policy to mirror social justice values by developing and advocating for policy initiatives. One task at hand is providing leadership development training.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau, opened the first discussion on “running for office.”

Next line up was Missoula lawyer, and former Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal attorney Pat Smith holding an interactive discussion on “the future of Indian country in Montana.”

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau, addresses the group on the dynamics of running for an elected position. Juneau answered the question of "Why run?" She stated, "You have to believe in the mission; and do it because you want to serve the community." (Lailani Upham photo)
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau, addresses the group on the dynamics of running for an elected position. Juneau answered the question of "Why run?" She stated, "You have to believe in the mission; and do it because you want to serve the community." (Lailani Upham photo)

After a dinner break, Smith followed up the evening with a thorough presentation on “Indian voting history and current trends.”

Former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., held a discussion the next day on “Native Americans and the U.S. Congress.” Williams impressed on the minds and hearts of participants to uphold three pillars of empowering tools in Indian country. “Education, economic empowerment, and political strength” he stated.

Jason Smith, State Tribal Economic Development Program Manager, was also one of the presenters and took the floor covering the importance of state-tribal relations in economic development. Smith also spoke on the vast effect voting in Indian country has on state and federal programs for Indian tribes.

Williams urged participants to communicate to their tribes the importance of political empowerment, and to draw voter attention to the polls. “You got to scare the crap out them (politicians),” he pointed out. “Turn out the vote and they’ll listen to you,” he added.

“You can put on a dance and invite them (political leaders) and they will go back home and nothing happens. If you don’t vote, they pay no attention to you,” he continued.

A question arose if Williams had seen a change in Congress toward tribes in the past 20 years. He stated it was getting better in the western half of the U.S. however tribes still remain invisible on the eastern side. Williams credits the better relationship to voting in Indian country. “Because Indians started to vote, they started paying attention,” he said.

Williams addressed the participants with the value of tribal schools and the significant efforts toward Indian graduation rates. “When I graduated from college there were 60 college degrees given to Indians...in the whole country! This past spring there were 360 doctorate degrees received by Indian students,” he stated. The graduation rate for Native students improved in the last 20 years he said. “No other ethnic group can compare to the growth rate,” he added.

“Be proud of the accomplishments and enormous gains; and get the word out. Vote.”

For more information on Indian Country leadership seminars, contact Molly Severtson, Executive Director, (406) 442-5506.

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