The CSKT water compact and dealing with (or bypassing) ideology
“Elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. . . . in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve.” —Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Tucked into the Covid-19 relief bill recently (finally) signed by the U.S. president are a couple of items that are probably unknown outside of the area of northwest Montana I live in, or at least largely unknown outside of Montana. Forwarded by all 3 members of the state’s congressional delegation is the completion of a water compact between the state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes—one that resolves almost all water claims by the tribe, and in which the CSKT gave up many of those claims in order to reach an agreement with the state legislature—and at the same time returns the National Bison Range to tribal ownership.
This compact was passed by the state legislature in 2015 and is a huge win for the state and, I hope, a relief for the tribe in finalizing their water rights—this despite the fact that they gave up significant water claims to which they were entitled under the Winters Doctrine (the 1908 U.S. Supreme Court case Winters v. United States that determined reservations that relied on agriculture automatically had first right to water sources). Transfer of the National Bison Range had also already been approved, but Ryan Zinke nixed it when he became Secretary of the Interior (for absolutely no good reason except he thought it would win him political points, but don’t get me started on Zinke because I have almost nothing nice to say).
As Montana-based national journalist and one of my favorite writers Anne Helen Petersen said on her Twitter account, this is going to royally piss off the far right in the Flathead Valley. She’s right. But she’s also right that the only things that make them angrier than the water compact are mask mandates (or even being asked to wear a mask) and refugees. Also liberals, gun control legislation, and the idea of a county-wide bike trail. So there’s that. And at this point it’s hard to care too much. Some of these conservatives have become such rigid ideologues that they object to even the idea of working with fellow legislators in the Democratic Party. Brad Tschida, one of the 18 Republican legislators (8 of whom are from Flathead County, where I live) who signed a letter in opposition to the water compact was quoted as saying in my local paper:
“When you have members on the other side of the aisle that are acknowledging and favorably responding to that decision, then I think there's something wrong with that, . . . So, to me, that smacks in the face of the citizens of the state of Montana that sent 67 Republicans to the Legislature this year.” (Emphasis added.)
He also literally said that this legislation must be wrong because some Democrats approved of it. Which is one of the now countless examples of the fact that many in the foundation of the Republican Party simply believe that any Democrat having any influence, power, or even winning a vote, is flat-out illegitimate.
I know many people who associate with that thinking, and they have become so entrenched in propaganda that it’s hard to reach for any kind of mutual sympathy. When the bipartisan water compact was passed by the state legislature and approved by the Republican attorney general, some of these objecting legislators were part of a group that launched a competing “People’s Compact” that had very little real support outside their ideological bubble and no political or legal legitimacy. But they tried hard, paying for billboards and a booklet insert in newspapers across the state, and claiming that the legislature had had no time to review or understand the CSKT compact despite also acknowledging the it had been worked on and negotiated for 8 years. They also tried to agitate against transferring the National Bison Range back to tribal ownership by complaining that a public resource was being given to a private entity, but aside from the fact that that doesn’t seem to stop them from wanting to privatize all other public lands plus public education, it ignores the reality that that Flathead Valley land had been set aside for a reservation when the Salish tribe was forced out of their lands in Bitterroot Valley, and that the CSKT then had to give up their nascent buffalo herd when being forced to open the reservation up to white settlement. Aside from ignoring the initial reality of all of this being on stolen land anyway. And that the CSKT has committed to keeping the Bison Range open to the public.
I realize I’m getting a bit lost in the weeds here, but I’ve been following this issue closely since I moved back to my hometown and am absolutely exhausted and annoyed with this group of people that keeps claiming to be the menders of fences while at the same time refusing to acknowledge any reality beyond the ones they’ve defined. You can’t reach mutual understanding over an issue that people believe in completely different realities about, though you can still hold out hope of building connections and understanding in other ways. But someone’s inability to perceive reality or their own prejudices doesn’t justify forcing other people to continue living with those injustices. Some people have a really hard time with change; that doesn’t mean everyone else has to sit around until Doomsday waiting for them to grow up.
These objectors are some of the same people who, when the CSKT paid millions of dollars for full ownership of a dam down-valley that they’d been co-managing, freaked out, insisted that the tribe would mismanage the resource, and then hired a lawyer who tried to claim in court that the tribal dam ownership was somehow linked to the Turkish government and the U.N.’s Agenda 21. (I am not kidding.) I don’t want to give up on people, but there comes a certain point when giving up on trying to help them see facts is the sensible thing to do.
I am incredibly relieved about the water compact and National Bison Range because I was worried that the federal end of the process might have to start over with the new Senate and presidential administration, and the CSKT has waited long enough for those issues to be resolved. It’s something that a lot of good people have been working on for a long time, and with Montana’s recent election of many harder-right conservatives, might be one of the last examples we get of the state’s supposed ability to look beyond party and work together on real issues that affect real people. But I credit the legislature with this win less than I credit the CSKT, who on this issue and many others (I believe they were the first local government in Montana to have a strategic climate change plan, which they wrote and passed in 2013) have shown an example of governance that other communities would be well to look up to.
If I owe you an email, apologies! I’m not always fast at responding to email, but holiday weeks tend to shut down my inbox for a while.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Newsletter reader Timothy shared this incredible essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer (whose Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss are books I keep returning to) on serviceberries and the struggle of commodification versus the promises of an economy based on reciprocity, reflecting the generosity and abundance of nature. (It also never occurred to me that serviceberries would be attractive enough for farming.)
Did you know there’s been a transcontinental bike and pedestrian trail in the works in the U.S.? The Rails-to-Trails Coalition, among other organizations, has been piecing it together and it’ll take a while—longer than many of us would like—but the the trail already has 2,000 miles.
I’ve never read Raynor Winn’s books, but I’m going to after listening to this interview with her on the Scotland Outdoors podcast. Her description of her husband’s illness and the 600-mile walk they took after becoming homeless sound beautiful, and I’m keenly interested in their experience of his neurological health improving during this intensive journey. I wrote a fair bit about neurological health and walking in my book, but of course science is always finding out more.
I'm right with you on all of this. I just want to add that I'm a big fan of Shelly Fyant, the CSKT chairwoman too.
What I find a little interesting is what this is telling us about Republican politics right now. I thought it a clever election ploy when Sen. Daines introduced the bill earlier in the year -- given how important the votes from Indigenous communities had been in Sen. Tester's victory.
But none of that explains at all why he (and Rep. Gianforte!) would expend the effort to get this enacted now, after the election, but before the ruby red trifecta (led by Gov. Gianforte!) takes over in Helena. There had been a little talk about the legislature doing some mischief wrt the CSKT compact -- I'm not hooked into winger culture enough to know how serious this was -- and with some very quick action, Sen Daines has just taken that off the table.
I think the Fort Belknap compact is the only one of the 7 Tribal compacts awaiting ratification by Congress. It doesn't seem to engender nearly as much antipathy as the CSKT compact, so we can hope maybe it gets ratified in the next Congress (if I haven't missed its ratification already) and that'll end this 40+ year endeavor . . .