Havre Daily News
A proposed human relations commission is a step closer to reality.
Havre-area city, county and school district officials and residents met this week to further discuss the formation of the commission, an outgrowth of discussions held in Havre between local officials and residents and a federal mediator.
Rocky Boy tribal council member and state legislator Jonathan Windy Boy said the meeting was needed to set the goals of the commission, which will be added to an agreement the members of the group will sign.
“To start a race, you've got to have a set finish,” Windy Boy said at Tuesday's meeting. The groundwork of establishing a commission will take some time, he added.
The meeting, which was held at the Rocky Boy tribal council chambers, was attended by about 20 people, including Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera, Havre Public Schools superintendent Kirk Miller, Blaine County Commissioner Dolores Plumage and U.S. Department of Justice mediator Grace Sage.
Windy Boy said the commission is needed because “there has been media (attention) negative to our neck of the woods.”
An article on racism in Havre, written by a University of Montana journalism student last year, sparked discussion about racial tensions in town. Sage has visited the Havre area several times since the article ran in a supplemental section of the Great Falls Tribune.
Rocky Boy tribal council members said they agree that education is key to dealing with racism issues. The members said education is needed both in schools and in homes.
Meeting participants said kids on playgrounds along the Hi-Line get along no matter what color they are and prejudice comes into play later in their schools and homes.
Miller said the schools are teaching Indian heritage and culture with authentic materials from tribes in the area.
He added that efforts need to be community-wide.
Racial prejudice takes time to learn, and will take time to un-learn, those at the meeting agreed.
Former tribal council member Walter “Moose” Denny said the trust between people on the Hi-Line has been broken and steps need to be taken to regain that trust before any resolutions can be made.
“We all have to respect one another and help one another in order to finally trust one another,” Denny said in an interview.
Once the commission gets established, people will be more apt to speak out, those who attended the meeting said.
“One voice isn't going to get it out there, but a lot of voices have a lot to say,” Havreite Lorna Stremcha said.
Some in attendance spoke of making the commission a go-between, linking people with complaints and problems to local resources.
Plumage said a key to the racism issue is the creation of policies dealing with racism complaints.
She said she thinks minorities are afraid to put their name on a complaint in fear they will be labeled a “troublemaker.” If a commission is formed and procedures are set, those who feel discriminated against will be more apt to come forward, she said.
“There's education and awareness, but I think the true impact is sanctions and consequences,” Plumage said.
Meeting participants agreed that racism is hard to prove and set definitions are needed.
Windy Boy said a commission could help locals access resources available in the area like employment training and organizations such as the District IV Human Resources Development Council.
Plumage, who sits on the HRDC board and on other boards, said she sees a lack of Indian representation. The members on the boards should reflect the community they are serving, she said.
Windy Boy suggested creating a help hotline.
Public relations efforts were discussed including posters, radio announcements and newspaper ads. Sage said she likes the idea of sending out invitations to area residents informing them of future meetings.
During the meeting, participants were broken into groups to discuss issues in housing, law enforcement, education, business and government. The groups rotated to ensure all had a chance to speak on each topic.
Plumage read aloud the list of ideas the group for the government and housing categories named, which included “It's not mandated that you have to like the person but work with them with respect,” “It is up to city, state and county officials to be ethically responsive to policies and not personalize actions,” and “Help those in need with housing resources.”
Education goals listed included training staff and students on cultural diversity and the acceptance of others and having schools spend time in other schools' environments.
When discussing law enforcement, participants said research needs to be done to ensure that racial profiling is not taking place.
Main goals listed by the group were to “build bridges” between groups and have Havre become a “cultural center for all.”
Sage said she hopes the communication doesn't stop with the meetings and efforts will be made to ensure the dialogue continues.
Tuesday's meeting was the first Havre City Council member Pam Hillery attended. As a newcomer, her reaction to the meeting was, “I think we have admitted there is a problem. Let's get to action.”
Hillery said too much time was spent rehashing the same issues.
Miller said he thought the meeting went well, but the group needs to commit to the issues.
“A lot of time is spent listening to a few specific people. We need to be willing to sit at the table and find solutions,” he said Wednesday. “I hope we can quit talking about what has happened in the past and move forward.”
Windy Boy said the group has had a good start but needs to “start whittling away at this.”
He said participants are still “organizing the organization” and he hopes to have an agreement of the commission's goals signed at the next meeting.
A public meeting is set for 9 a.m. on May 2. The location is yet to be determined.