‘All of Montana is a border town,’ civil rights panel told


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Sarah Beaumont is comforted by her cousin, left, and grandmother during her testimony Monday before the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In the background are committee members Kiah Abbey and Dennis Taylor.

A civil rights panel conducted a hearing in Billings for nearly eight hours Monday on the subject of discrimination against Native Americans, and it heard nothing more vivid than the testimony of Sarah Beaumont.

For 20 minutes, punctuated by fits of sobbing, Beaumont told of working for a major company in a good union job in Billings, and of having to endure, on an almost daily basis, hateful, hurtful remarks about Native Americans.

“I’m sorry to be so emotional,” the Crow-Northern Cheyenne woman said to the panel, “but it’s just built up and I don’t know what to do.”

When the hearing ended at 8 p.m., Kiah Abbey, a 2009 graduate of Billings West High School and a member of the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said Beaumont’s remarks, and the testimony of others throughout the day, was harrowing.

“It’s shocking and just appalling that this is happening across the state,” she said. “I think this is the first time I’ve been ashamed to be a Montanan.”

The title of the meeting was “Bordertown Discrimination in Montana,” and when representatives of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems testified earlier in the day, there was some confusion about the term, with several speakers saying Billings wasn’t technically a reservation border town, like Hardin.

But Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, who told his own stories of dealing constantly with discrimination, said, “In my view, all of Montana is a border town.”

Six members of the 13-person advisory committee attended the hearing in Billings, as did Malee Craft, director of the Denver office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which oversees the Montana committee.

Each state’s advisory committee periodically chooses its own topics to investigate and sends its findings and recommendations to the national commission, which advises the president and Congress on civil rights matters.

Craft said it will probably take about six months to compile a report on Monday’s hearing. A complete transcript of the session will be typed up and people who testified will be given a chance to review their comments and correct any transcription errors. Follow-up questions may also be asked of some presenters, with their responses included in the report.

When the report is done, Craft said, it will be posted on the national commission’s website, and printed copies will be available at the Billings Public Library and a few other places. The state advisory committee is also accepting written testimony—email it to ebohor@usccr.gov—until Sept. 29.

Meeting in the basement of the Al Bedoo Shrine Auditorium at 1125 Broadwater Ave., the advisory committee spent six hours hearing from invited representatives of law enforcement, tribal organizations, schools, advocacy groups and state, local and federal agencies. For the last two hours of the hearing, members of the public were invited to speak.

Law enforcement

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John, left, and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder were the first to testify before the committee Monday.

Here’s some of what the panel heard from invited guests:

♦ Police Chief Rich St. John said detailed reports on Police Department activities show “absolutely no red flags” about racial profiling or other forms of discrimination. He said a community police review board was disbanded “because it really didn’t have much to do.”

♦ Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said that as of last Wednesday, the county jail held 467 inmates, of whom 137 were Native American. Those Indian inmates, he said, included some being held while awaiting appearances in U.S. District Court.

♦ Chief Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Ed Zink said Native Americans are disproportionally victims of crimes. Though they made up 6.2 percent of the state’s population in 2013-14, they made up 11 percent of murder victims in those years, 9 percent of rape victims and 13 percent of assault victims.

♦ Caitlin Borgmann, director of the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the chapter recently hired its first indigenous justice outreach worker. One continuing focus of the ACLU will be looking at the very high rates of incarceration of Native Americans, particularly Indian women, she said.

♦ Majel Russell, an attorney with the Elk River Law Firm who has long represented Indian people, said one of the great failures of the criminal justice system is that it punishes people who lack the money and means of transportation to meet requirements of probation and parole. The result, she said, is that “we are packing our jails with people who are not necessarily committing new crimes.”

♦ Glenda McCarthy, an Indian education instructional coach for Billings School District 2, applauded the state’s Indian Education for All Act, but said there is “no day-to-day accountability” to make sure teachers are doing everything they should be doing to implement the act.

♦ Littlebear, the Chief Dull Knife College president, said that discrimination against Indians is still rampant in Montana and that a “frontier mentality” is often on display at the Montana Legislature. He said it is a “constant, continuous process” to educate Montanans to recognize stereotypes and to stop using them.

♦ Calli Rusche-Nicholson, also an instructional coach for Billings Public Schools, said that when the district decided to name a new middle school after Crow Indian leader Joe Medicine Crow, a student said one of her parents asked how Rusche-Nicholson could support “something so stupid.”

During the public testimony from 6 to 8 p.m., Mary Cleland said she drove all the way from from Poplar to ask the committee’s help in doing something about the mass detention of street people allegedly ordered by  the Fort Peck tribal executive board in 2013.

As has been reported, the board, with the support of Wolf Point police officers and city officials, was said to have ordered the “wino round up” in advance of the 2103 Wild Horse Stampede. A federal lawsuit filed last month said as many as 50 people were held overnight in filthy, stiflingly hot conditions with no water or toilets.

Cleland, a tribal court advocate who is working with some of the plaintiffs in the case, spoke at great length, until being told by committee chairwoman Norma Bixby that her time was up.

“I’m not going to stop talking about it if I have to walk across this country,” Cleland said.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Advisory committee member Gwen Kircher, left, and chairwoman Norma Bixby listen to testimony.

Adrian Jawort and Russell Rowland, who organized a series of Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposiums in Billings, testified together. Rowland told the panel that when he moved back to Montana after 25 years away, he was shocked at how little things had changed over the years, and at how much discrimination was still apparent.

Jawort read an essay he wrote—published in Indian Country Today and on Last Best News—about the inevitable talk he will have to have with his precious daughter, telling about the bias and discrimination that will be part of her life.

“We need to air our differences of opinion in an open manner and not be afraid to confront dormant prejudices always waiting like a smoldering ember, ready to reignite hostile feelings at the slightest provocation,” Jawort said.

Janice Little Light Hudetz, who grew up in Crow Agency but has lived in Billings for many years, said that real estate agents “steered” her and her white husband away from certain parts of town when they were trying to buy a house years ago.

Rhonda Whiteman, a Crow woman born in Billings, said racism is such a part of the fabric of daily life that “I don’t even realize that I’m anticipating it all the time. … Every day, all day long, I’m anticipating it.”

“There are definitely some good things going on here,” Whiteman said, “but there is an insidious undercurrent of prejudice.”

Karen Little Light, a Crow woman, said two of her children look Caucasian and go wherever they please with no trouble, but her children who “look Indian” can’t go anywhere without confronting suspicion and discrimination.

“It’s so expected in Billings that we accept it,” she said.

Clara Alden, also a Crow woman, said she had a 35-year career working for four federal agencies, a career that took her to Oklahoma, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., among other places.

After all those experiences, she said, “I look at Montana as more racist than anywhere else.”

In her testimony, Sarah Beaumont, introduced at the beginning of this story, said she has lived and worked in Billings for 13 years. And though she is a good, hard worker, she said, she feels constantly looked down upon and suffers through almost daily displays of subtle or overt racism.

She said things came to a head recently when a co-worker, who had been putting in a lot of overtime, said he had been “spending money like a drunk Indian.” She was shocked and asked him to apologize, but he refused, saying he was just joking around. Beaumont said she was shocked again when she filed a complaint against the man, only to find that the union supported her co-worker, not her.

Whiteman went back to the witness table to testify on behalf of Beaumont, who she said is her cousin. After she filed a complaint against the co-worker, Whiteman said, Beaumont had to deal with constant harassment, including finding a butcher knife in her locker.

Beaumont said she doesn’t want to give up her good job, but she understands now why so many Native Americans would rather live on the reservation than try to make it in Billings.

Advisory committee member Gwen Kircher advised Beaumont to file a complaint with the city of Billings Human Relations Commission, on which Kircher also serves. The commission has no enforcement authority, Kircher said, but it can conduct investigations and try to find ways to resolve disputes.

After the hearing adjourned, chairwoman Bixby, who lives in Kirby on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, said she hoped the law enforcement and criminal justice officials who testified earlier in the day would heed the testimony of the people who spoke later.

“I think officials need to listen to the community and admit there is discrimination,” she said.

Committee member Eran Thompson, who also serves on the board of the Montana Human Rights Network, said he wishes the advisory committee could hold hearings in other towns because there is so much that needs to be said and so many people who need to be listened to.

Referring to Beaumont and the racism she is subjected to, Thompson said, “I wish people could see Sarah, and just see the damage it is doing to us as people.”

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