The Coeur d’Alene Tribe wants a deadly stretch of Highway 95 that runs through its reservation fixed. It wants the lake cleaned up. It wants jobs for its people and an end to racial discrimination in North Idaho.
But most of all, Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar told Gov. Phil Batt Monday, the tribe wants to be treated with dignity and respect, so it can work with the state to solve these problems and more.
Batt was listening, and promised the state will look into issues raised by Idaho’s tribal leaders Monday at an unprecedented Native American Issues Summit.
Batt gave the leaders of Idaho’s five Indian tribes an hour each to present their issues. More than a dozen state officials and department heads were there to respond to questions. The governor stressed that the summit was just the start.
“I want to instruct all my agencies to be responsive to these issues,” Batt told Stensgar and the assembled agency heads. “If there is any intolerance or lack of response, I’d like to know about it personally.”
Some tribal leaders had asked Batt to consider establishing an “Indian desk” to deal with tribal issues. Batt said Monday, “I feel as if the responsibility is mine to meet with you government to government. I am the Indian desk.”
Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai tribal leaders said they were impressed by the governor’s willingness to listen to their concerns.
“The past three years has been a gray area in tribal-state relations,” said Stensgar, whose tribe has sued the state over casino gambling and ownership of Lake Coeur d’Alene. “I guess I like the new feeling, if you will.”
Stensgar was blunt about the tribe’s concerns, at one point asking Batt, “Governor, how many Native Americans do you have working for the state of Idaho?”
Batt responded, “None that I’ve appointed at this point.”
Stensgar said Native Americans should be better represented both among state employees and on state boards and commissions. “We have educated people that could be of service to the state,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many non-Indians we have working for the tribe, but we have a bunch.”
Stensgar said Native Americans experience discrimination routinely. “If you’re a person of color, it exists every day,” he said. “You see it and you feel it, when you go up into the city of Coeur d’Alene and you go into a store and you’re followed around.”
“If tribal-state relations are going to be meaningful, then we have to treat each other with dignity and with respect,” Stensgar said. “We have to sit down and have a meaningful dialogue, like we are doing today.”
Among the other concerns Stensgar outlined were these:
U.S. Highway 95: “We’ve had umpteen deaths in that section of highway. Nothing has been done satisfactorily. It’s easy to say it hasn’t been addressed because it’s on the reservation … I don’t want to say that.”
Batt, while acknowledging Highway 95 has long needed work, said he served on the state Transportation Board and the question of what kind of people lives along a stretch of road had never entered into decisions on where to repair. “If there’s some indication of that, I’d like to know about it because it’s intolerable,” he said.
Lake Coeur d’Alene: “The Coeur d’Alene Tribe maintains we own that lake, and we don’t want to see that lake deteriorating.” Stensgar said even though the tribe and the state are fighting in court about ownership, the two still can work together to clean up mining wastes.
“The Coeur d’Alene Tribe isn’t selfish,” he said. “We feel that Coeur d’Alene Lake hasn’t been managed right by the state - they haven’t been good stewards.”
Gambling: Stensgar said national legislation targeting the tribe’s proposed National Indian Lottery is “clearly racism” unless it targets all gambling, not just Indian gaming. Idaho does not oppose the tribe’s plan.
Juvenile justice: The tribe wants to work with the state to meet the needs of tribal youth who commit crimes.
Education: “Our test scores are very, very low,” Stensgar said. The tribe wants to work with the state to make sure its children get a good education.
Adoption: The tribe doesn’t want Indian children adopted off the reservation without its involvement. “We don’t like our children to be lost,” Stensgar said.
Other tribes on Monday raised issues ranging from water quality to taxes.
“This is a beginning,” said Nez Perce tribal council treasurer Julia Davis.
Governor Batt said he thought the meeting was productive. “There were obviously some issues that can’t be settled easily; we’ll work on them,” he said. “The ones that can be accomplished with little difficulty, we’ll go right after.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Batt’s promises Gov. Phil Batt made three promises to Idaho tribes during his Native American Issues Summit on Monday: He will make himself available to the tribes one day each month for at least the next few months to address their concerns. Batt will ask the Legislature to reinstate the defunct legislative committee on Indian affairs. His agencies will address the many issues tribes brought to his attention Monday.