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Voters to decide who runs programs at Fort Belknap


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A question of who should administer some of the programs at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation will go to the voters Tuesday.

The reservation's Community Council approved a resolution in May to contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service to have the tribal government administer some federal programs. A group of people on the reservation formed a coalition asking that the resolution be rescinded, and council members Raymond Chandler and Walter Horn called for a referendum on the issue, said Selena Ditmar, who helped form the coalition.

Other council members still support their May decision.

"Contracting is definitely the wave of the future," Council member John Allen said today. "We're just eliminating a bunch of red tape."

Chandler and Horn could not be reached for comment this morning.

Ditmar said she doesn't oppose the tribe assuming responsibility of more programs, but she opposes May's decision. The tribe took over the programs Nov. 1, she said.

"I know that eventually we are going to have to contract these programs," she said. "We don't feel three or four months is adequate (time to) learn to manage these programs."

The programs the tribal government contracted to administer are fire management, probate services, realty services, road maintenance, agricultural services, trust services and the Indian Health Service's programs for environmental health and engineering.

The tribe already was administering 35 programs previously run by the BIA and IHS, including water resources, tribal courts, credit, law enforcement, transportation, criminal investigation, planning and several health programs.

Some members of the coalition also think the May decision was reached without the involvement of reservation residents, Ditmar said.

Allen said the council held some public meetings before the decision was made, but few people attended.

The possibility of contracting to manage some programs was raised at the meetings, although what programs would be contracted was not discussed, he said.

Harris Rock, a reservation resident who teaches at Harlem High School, said the transition in management is causing him problems.

He leases out his land on the reservation, and most of it has been put into the Conservation Reserve Program, Rock said. When he went to Chinook to pick up the check he normally receives in the fall, he was told it would be at the BIA office at Fort Belknap, he said.

He waited about a month, then checked at the tribal office and was told the money had been frozen because of the transition from the BIA to the tribal government, Rock said.

He was told his check would probably be ready either by December or March, Rock said. Now he has to find a way to satisfy the creditors he was counting on paying with that money.

Allen said the transition couldn't have caused that problem. The BIA still handles all monetary disbursements, he said. The responsibilities of the tribe will be to administer the day-to-day operations and maintenance of programs, he said.

The likely reason for the delay in Rock's payment is that the federal government still hasn't completed its budget, and all programs have little funds until it is complete, he said.

Contracting the services will make them more efficient, Allen said. The tribe prides itself on its employees working harder than the government officials. The tribal government also is better able to tailor programs to meet the needs of local people, he said.

The BIA and Indian Health Services will continue to be the ultimate authority, he said.

"We've still got a government watchdog. It's not like we're going to run rampant and do what we want," he said.

Allen and Ditmar said the coalition has been working to make sure people get out to vote on the issue. 1,436 voters are needed to make the referendum official.

In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act allowing tribes to administer the federal governments programs on their reservation.

The Chippewa and Cree tribes and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes already have contracts to manage federal programs and several other Montana tribes contemplating whether to follow suit will be observing the takeover.

The polling places, in the Red Whip Center at the Fort Belknap Agency, the John Capture Center in Hays, Wath A Tau in Dodson and the Medicine Bear Lodge in Lodge Pole, will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.


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