By Alan Sorensen
ROCKY BOY Being nearly 50 years behind the rest of the country is a common complaint in the isolated regions of north central Montana.
But for the Chippewa Cree Tribe, farmers and ranchers on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, it is a truth that is being remedied.
Taking up the task of completing a half-century's work are a pair of energetic and thorough professionals, both enrolled members of the Chippewa Cree Tribe.
District Conservationist Shawn Big Knife of the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United State Department of Agriculture came to Rocky Boy as a result of the 1990 Farm Bill. His counterpart for the Tribe is Robert "Sonny" Belcourt, director of the reservation's Natural Resources Department since 1995.
"I've been with the agency for 13 years, originally stationed in Sidney," Big Knife said. "The 1990 Farm Bill passed a law dealing with tribal government. It said that if a tribe wanted a full-time agent, it could request it.
"(The Chippewa Cree Business Committee) saw a need here on Rocky Boy and the first question they asked was was, is there anyone enrolled in the Tribe with the agency?'"
The Tribe did its homework and Big Knife's NRCS office was opened in the Natural Resources building in October 1993.
"We started from scratch," Big Knife said. "It's been an interesting job. It's good to be home and work with the people."
Big Knife said his focus has been on outreach and education. He participates in quarterly meetings on the reservation that teach residents about the various programs available, from range and herd management to water and environmental programs.
"I provide assistance to the Tribe and assisgnment holders and enrolled members by developing conservation plans and try to match available USDA incentive programs to help implement each plan," Big Knife said. "The conservation plan is a total resource management document that takes into considertation the soil, water, air, plants, animals and then the human and economic asopects of each individual operation."
Big Knife said his primary goals were to establish NRCS programs on the reservation and increase individual participation, and he has done those.
"Probably the most interesting project we completed out here since I've been here, we started a reservation inventory at the request of the Tribe," Big Knife said. "People from NRCS offices in different areas throughout the state came up and spent two weeks out here inventorying Rocky Boy."
Big Knife said each of the workers was given a small area of land to map and to note details of the area. The process began with that two-week inventory in 1996 and ended with the completed document in 1998, he said.
"It's provided the Tribe with a useful planning tool that says this is what we have,'" Big Knife said. "It's baseline information for future planning reference and it has become a valuable tool, in that respect."
Big Knife has taken on the added responsibility of helping the Tribe establish its own conservation district.
"The Tribe saw a need to establish its own conservation district," Big Knife said. "It's a loosely knit bunch that meets once a month to provide direction, goals and objectives. They tell me what they want, provide me guidance on what needs to be done on the reservation."
Big Knife said that most counties in the country have had their own conservation districts for 50 or 60 years.
"We've only been active for six years, and NRCS conservation districts have been in existence since 1945, so we have a long way to go before we ever reach parity" Big Knife said. "Our land is a lot less developed than land on the outside, when comparing conservation practices installed, such as irrigation land leveling, livestock water pipelines, and shelterbelts, just to name a few.
"We're just starting to get our feet wet. At the tribal level, we're learning how it works."
Big Knife said USDA programs don't adapt well to reservations and tribal governments, because there is a constant change with every new farm bill and it's difficult to keep up with the changes.
"In the last six years, we've made huge strides in a program that's not designed for Indian people," Big Knife said. "A lot of requirements we've had to research, and (we've) learned how to deal with them."
Big Knife said another of his goals is to have more tribal members involved in developing good quality conservation plans. He would also wanted to remind community members that NRCS services are strictly voluntary with no associated costs. "It's a government freebie."
"We're a growing district," Big Knife said. "It's been interesting working with these guys."
For more information about NRCS programs at Rocky Boy, call Big Knife at 395-4066. His fax number is (406) 395-4382 and his e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Belcourt can be reached at Natural Resources at 395-4207.
Other sources of information and ag assistance at Rocky Boy are FSA County Committeeman Tony Belcourt and Montana State University Extension Agent Mary Ruth St. Pierre at Stone Child College.