By Michael Howell
At a meeting on November 27, the Ravalli County Commissioners agreed to hand deliver a letter to members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) apologizing for the offensive remarks made by a member of the public at a previous meeting on November 20. At that meeting an entourage of tribal members had come, at the invitation of the County Commissioners, to discuss the commissioners’ objection to the Tribes’ proposed transfer of 58 acres of land in Ravalli County from tribal ownership into federal trust status. The meeting ended on a discordant note as Jan Wisniewski, Chairman of the Ravalli County Planning Board, made remarks about “the problem with drunken Indians.”
According to unofficial minutes of the November 20 meeting, Wisniewski stated that he had made some visits to numerous counties in Montana and the Dakotas and found that Indians from different tribes come in to non-reservation areas and get drunk and then try and run back onto the reservation so they don’t get caught. He noted that the Havre jail had about 58 [Indians in the jail].
Steve Lozar, a Tribal Council member from Polson, stated that he had come here with a good heart and was deeply offended by the remarks about drunken Indians in the Havre jail. He said it had nothing to do with what was being discussed. He said he wanted it noted for the record that he was extremely offended.
Commissioner Suzy Foss said that she was offended by the comments as well, and, according to the minutes, the other commissioners concurred at the time. Foss said she did not want them to leave the meeting thinking that the commission agreed with the comments made by Wisniewski.
As the entourage of tribal representatives filed out, Wisniewski stated that he wanted to clarify that what he said is factual and they can dispute it all they want, but he is just stating the facts.
Prior to public comment at the meeting, the commissioners themselves and Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht questioned the Tribes’ representatives about their proposal to place the 58 acres of land into trust status. Last April, the Commission voted to object to the transfer for a number of reasons and to file an official appeal.
Tribal Council Attorney Daniel Decker explained that the application filed with Bureau of Indian Affairs will place the land jurisdiction with the federal government, where it will be held in trust for the Tribes. After the application is submitted a survey is completed, then the local government agencies are given notification of their filing. Local governments, such as Ravalli County, can then appeal the application process, he said. At this point the application will be remanded back to the Tribal Council and they will enhance the application and re-submit.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott asked how a tree becomes a “medicine tree” and Tony Incashola related one of the Tribes’ creation stories that has to do with the Medicine Tree located on the property in question. He said the main reason for placing the property into trust was to preserve and protect the scared ground where these events at the beginning of creation took place.
Commissioner J.R. Iman expressed concern about taking the land out of the county tax base but still providing county services to it. He also had concerns about the future expansion of the highway in the area.
Chilcott expressed surprise at the size of the parcel and asked how the Medicine Tree area was defined. He wondered if any of the 58 acres was outside of the sacred area.
Iman stated that the Tribes purchased the land in a secular world so they should understand the commissioners need to look at issues such as access, the existing home site, and the taxes. He said removing $808 from the tax base was an issue and that the home site owner has some opportunities that the commissioners need to look out for.
Foss said she appreciates history but has a real issue with taxes being taken off the tax rolls.
Recht asked a series of questions about the Tribes’ real intent in placing the land in trust. He wondered if the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had a management plan. He said it was baffling since they already own the land as to why they want to place it in trust with an organization that doesn’t have a presence in the valley.
Chilcott said he was concerned about sovereignty issues and wondered about the effect on county services if the Tribes decided to put in a casino or a race track. He wondered if the county would be able to go onto the property to apprehend criminals or fight fires. He also wondered if there were any other sacred grounds in Ravalli County that the commissioners need to know about.
Lozar said the Tribes had no intention of putting a casino on the property. He said they were seeking to protect it for its spiritual value. Incashola concurred, saying that they were doing not for development but for preservation.
That’s when public comment was opened and Wisniewski made his “drunken Indian” remarks.
The commissioners received quite a bit of correspondence relating to Wisniewski’s remarks. Most, like Lozar, expressed extreme offense at the remarks, calling them “appalling,” “unacceptable” and “racist.” Many called on the commissioners to dismiss Wisniewski from the Planning Board.
The only comment that could be interpreted as in support of Wisniewski was from Robert Myers, an attorney who wrote, Wisniewski “believes that any apology to be made can only be made by him. Jan specifically stated that the statements he was to make were those of a private citizen and not as a representative of the Ravalli County Planning Board in any capacity. The County Commission has neither the legal nor moral authority to apologize for the words of a private citizen of this county.”
But last Wednesday, the commissioners did decide to tender a letter of apology to the Tribes that will be hand delivered in a few weeks. The brief two-paragraph letter states that the commissioners appreciate the tribal representatives for attending the meeting.
“Ravalli County values the cultural heritage between the Salish people and the Bitterroot Valley and desires to further a positive relationship with CSKT.
“The Board apologizes if public comments caused offense. Certain comments did not represent the opinion of the Board or the majority of people in Ravalli County.”
Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said Monday that, in regards to the many requests for Wisniewski to be dismissed from the Planning Board, Wisniewski’s term on the board is up at the end of this month.
“Since there are no meetings between now and then it makes sense to take up with this issue at that time if Mr. Wisniewski re-applies for the position,” said Burrows.
Regarding the commissioners’ objection to the transfer of the land into a federal trust, Burrows said the commission still has a lot of legitimate questions that have not been answered. He said he believed the Tribe was open to further discussions and that they would probably come up with some answers.
“Then we will be in a better position to make a decision,” he said.