By Ron VandenBoom
Bert Corcoran, tribal chairman at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, told the North Central Montana Pachyderm Club Friday that self-governance has improved over all conditions on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, but population growth is straining the reservation's ability to meet the community's needs.
"Welfare reform has pushed our limits," Corcoran told the Pachyderms. "I can remember when only 700 people lived there."
Corcoran said the number of registered members on the reservation south of Havre has risen from about 2,000 to 5,000 during the last 10 years and currently about 3,200 people are residents there.
Corcoran explained that the advent of welfare reform four years ago led many tribal members who were living off the reservation to return home.
Welfare reform limited to two years the time recipients could receive benefits while on the reservation recipients can receive benefits for seven years, he said.
The majority of those now living at Rocky Boy's are in the zero to 40-year-old age bracket, he said.
"That's going to be the toughest area that we'll have to deal with," Corcoran said. "We just can't handle that many people."
A recent change in the relationship between Rocky Boy's and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services has however tempered the impact of increased population growth.
The passage of the Self-Governance Act by Congress in 1994 empowered the Rocky Boy's Business Committee to place funds where they are most needed and increased the financial ability of the committee to deal with the increase in population.
Corcoran said that prior to the passage of the Self-Governance Act by Congress, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services ran Rocky Boy. He noted that between the two agencies a total of about 120 government employees worked on the reservation and 85 percent of all the money appropriated went to pay the salaries of the government employees. Only 15 percent of the funds were available for roads, forestry projects, or health services, or other reservation needs.
"You couldn't do much with 15 percent," he said.
Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation is a sovereign nation.
"We run the Bureau of Indian Affairs," Corcoran said. "We have no federal officials out there whatsoever."
Rocky Boy's negotiates yearly for a financial lump sum from the government that it is free to use as the committee sees fit to meet the needs of the people.
"We can offer our people better services and more services and we have," Corcoran said. "We run the show."
Rocky Boy's now employs about 210 people in Health Services instead of the 60 the government used to employ and about 160 in other areas of the reservation, Corcoran said.
This allows the reservation to decide what and how many health services will be offered, he said, citing as an example the ability to offer treatments such as acupuncture and traditional Indian medicine.
The committee also now has the freedom to decide whether more money needs to be placed into roads, forestry, or other reservation projects.
Corcoran, who recently announced his retirement as tribal chairman, said he is most proud of the fact that during his term of office the committee's finances were brought under control and budgets were balanced for the first time since self-governance took effect. He also noted that about $1.5 million in trust funds exist that previously had been tapped every year to meet expenses.
Corcoran did however express frustration over the fact the Bureau of Indian Affairs recent moratorium on any new tribes becoming independent. He noted that out of 585 tribes in the United States, only 248 opted for self-governance.
He expressed his belief that the Bureau made the decision because the bureaucrats feared for their own jobs if more tribes joined the plan.
The number of jobs with the Bureau of Indian Affairs has dropped, he said, from 17,000 when the act took effect to about 10,000 today.