The need for better education and health care opportunities are some of the biggest challenges facing Indian Country today, according to the newly seated chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, Sen. Jon Tester.
With the recent appointment of former Sen. Max Baucus to ambassador of China, the dominos fell so that Tester, who has been on the Indian Affairs committee since he was first elected seven years ago, could assume the role of chairman. Tester replaced Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who moved to the Small Business Committee.
In an interview with the Beacon last week, Tester addressed a gamut of issues facing the Native American community, including the government turmoil on the Blackfeet Reservation and the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins’ name.
Beacon: You grew up near the Rocky Boy Reservation and have been on the Indian Affairs Committee for a number of years; how do those experiences shape your worldview of Indian Country and what are some of the most pressing issues there today?
Tester: I was familiar with Native American issues and the reservations growing up near the Rocky Boy Reservations and later being on the Big Sandy School Board. I remember the challenges they faced, be it in housing or safety or dropout rates, whatever it might be, and so that experience made me aware of what was going on. There are 500 different tribes and each one has different issues, but I come at it with a Montana perspective.
I’m a former teacher and education has been a big part of my life; my mom was a teacher and I have a kid who was a teacher, so it’s a big part of me. I think when we look at the kind of poverty happening in Indian Country, I think the best way someone can get out of that poverty is with an education. My focus has been on all education but with a special focus on pre-kindergarten because I think you get the most bang for your buck with that. My first hearing focused on education and the next few will too. We’re going to work with Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Sally Jewell, the U.S. Secretary of Interior, and everyone at the Bureau of Indian Affairs on how we can maximize what we get out of the dollars spent in Indian Country.
Beacon: Reservation schools, especially tribal colleges, continue to struggle and, according to some officials, reservation colleges receive about $5,000 per student whereas state university get an average of $12,000 per student. What can be done to level the playing field?
Tester: There is something we can do, you just have to get creative. They need a lot of health care professionals in Indian Country and there are grants out there that tribal colleges can get to train nurses, so let’s get some of those grants. You’ve got to look at opportunities to fill the skillsets they need. Do I look at it from a standpoint that, well this guy gets $5,000 and this guy gets $12,000 so we better find $7,000? No, I don’t. I look at how we can empower tribal colleges to fill their needs.
Beacon: A Native American is twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as a non-native person. What can be done to combat that disease and what can be done to improve reservation health care?
Tester: A lot of this goes back to poverty; there are no ifs, ands or buts about it. It’s a lot cheaper to buy junk food than it is to buy a steak and vegetables and so we’ve got to figure out how to beat poverty and once again, education is a big part of that. The other thing we need to do is empower the healthcare system and that’s what the Affordable Healthcare Act does, it allows folks to get insurance and talk about how important diet is. Ultimately it’s about a different type of education, educating people what types of food to eat. There are things you can do to stop diabetes and it has to do with diet.
Beacon: Native Americans across the country are worried about losing their native languages and recently you introduced a bill that would award government grants to tribal schools to develop and advance language emersion programs. What is the status of that legislation?
Tester: It’s been introduced and it needs to get through the Senate and the House and hopefully it’ll land on the president’s desk. There are other benefits to these language immersion programs than just preserving the language. Native American kids are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school than non-native schools, but these language programs keep them in school, help them get better grades and it connects them with their culture, which I think is critically important for them to be successful in the world; you need to know where you’re coming from to know where you’re going. That’s the whole idea. The bill gives the reservations the tools they need to start up these emersion programs.
Beacon: For more than two years, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council has been in turmoil and just last year it split into two factions. Last week, the BIA wrote that it was worried about the upcoming tribal election. Is that something that is on your radar and can the BIA or federal government come in and stabilize that situation?
Tester: Both the BIA and the Department of Justice have offered mediation services, but they are a sovereign nation and you don’t want me coming in there and telling them what to do. I won’t do that. I think it would behoove them to fix their government themselves so their people can control it again. As long as the government is in this state of flux they are missing out on a lot of opportunities and the people who are really suffering are the rank and file members. They need to figure it out and if I was in their situation – and I’m not and I’m not telling them what to do – but I would use what resources are out there to fix what is wrong. We hear a lot from the people on the Blackfeet and things are not good and it does not have to be that way. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and they will fix this sooner rather than later.
Beacon: Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he believed it was only a matter of time before the Washington Redskins change their name to something less disparaging to Native Americans. What’s your take on the controversy surrounding the name?
Tester: I think the name has to change through public pressure, not an act of Congress. If it offends Native Americans then hopefully that owner will take that into consideration and change the team’s name to the Americans or something. But at the same time I think Congress has too many other things to do than pass an act that tells the Washington Redskins to change its name, which is what some people want. We have an economy that needs job creation, schools that need work and infrastructure needs that need to be addressed. The list goes on and on and on. Although very important to some, and I respect their hatred of (that name), I still think the best way to change it is through public pressure. Of course if the team started to lose money because of the name they would change it in a second. It’s all about cash.
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