HELENA – The way for Montana’s American Indian reservations to escape poverty is through the free market, but the shortcomings of tribal governments are preventing businesses from flourishing, Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte said in a campaign stop last month.
Gianforte made his remarks on July 21 in Huntley in response to an audience member’s question about how to fix the economic, crime and drug problems on the state’s seven reservations.
The Huntley event was recorded by a volunteer for the Montana Democratic Party, which released it to The Associated Press and other news organizations on Thursday. Event organizer Becky Robison confirmed that Gianforte made the remarks in the audio recording.
The Bozeman businessman began by saying that one of the main issues is that there are few opportunities on the reservations.
He said the only way to lift people out of poverty is through the free market, citing a book by Barry Asmus called “The Poverty of Nations.”
However, Gianforte went on, some things required for a free market to prosper don’t exist on Montana’s reservations, such as the consistent rule of law, respect for property rights, the lack of nepotism, the ability of a worker to keep the fruits of his labor and a culture that celebrates success.
“These things exist in very limited forms on these reservations,” Gianforte said. “You take the Crow, for example. My advice to would-be entrepreneurs there is, you may not be able to start the business on the reservation, but maybe you can do it in Hardin, just off, so you have the protection of the Montana courts.”
He added that the U.S. government is trying to strangle coal, a main economic driver on the Crow reservation, and that he has talked to the tribe’s chairman, Darrin Old Coyote, about the issue.
Old Coyote said Friday that Gianforte is flat-out wrong about business opportunities on Montana’s reservations. The Crow tribe helps many people looking to start businesses, and development grants for entrepreneurs on reservations are available from the state, he said.
In 2016, organizations from eight Montana tribes received Native American Business Adviser grants to support private sector business development in tribal communities.
On the Crow reservation, the law is administered equally and consistently, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the Crow tribal court system as a competent jurisdiction, Old Coyote said.
“He has no idea what Indian tribes are doing,” Old Coyote said of Gianforte. “I would say he needs to do his homework on Indian Country.”
There have been instances of corruption among tribal leaders in the state in recent years brought to light by a years-long investigation into alleged misappropriation of federal money to the tribes. Dozens of tribal leaders and officials, including those from the Chippewa Cree, Blackfeet, Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and Crow tribes, have been convicted in the wide-ranging probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, called the Guardians Project.
Native Americans in Montana have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates, but Republican politicians have spent recent campaigns courting the Indian vote. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Gianforte’s former employee at RightNow Technologies, in particular has worked to win the support of the Crow tribe by pushing legislation to promote energy development on the southeastern Montana reservation.
Gianforte has taken a page out of Daines’ book in his campaign to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Gianforte says he has been to all seven reservations in the state, conducted entrepreneurship seminars on three of them and even played the Native American stick game with the chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Gianforte was not available for an interview on Friday, communications director Aaron Flint said. Instead, Flint released a statement from state Rep. Bruce Meyers, a Republican member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, which said he is voting for Gianforte because politicians in Helena and Washington have made empty promises to help Indian Country.
“Instead of standing up to President Obama and his war on coal, which has already cost the Crow Tribe more than 100 jobs on the reservation, career politicians like Steve Bullock are launching cheap attacks on someone like Greg Gianforte — who has been working to create more high wage job opportunities in our reservation communities,” Flint said in an emailed statement.