Rights panel to look into ‘border town discrimination’

rights logoA series of panel discussions looking at “border town discrimination” against Native Americans will take place in Billings on Monday, Aug. 29.

The daylong event is being put on by the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and will be held in the Shrine Auditorium, 1125 Broadwater Ave.

The committee will take testimony from representatives of law enforcement, local, state and federal agencies, tribal officials, community organizations and advocacy groups from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Members of the public will be invited to speak in an open forum from 6 to 8 p.m.

Committee chairwoman Norma Bixby, a Northern Cheyenne educator and former state legislator, could not be reached for comment, but she said in a press release that some Native Americans “face overwhelming discrimination barriers that prevent them from becoming productive citizens of Montana.”

Gwen Kircher, who lives in Billings and has been on the committee since being appointed by Gov. Marc Racicot, said Billings “has the reputation of being the most bigoted city in the state.”

“From my observation,” she said, “a lot of what they (Native Americans) go through now is what we African Americans dealt with in the 1960s.”

Based on what the committee hears, it will compile a report and submit it to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is an independent agency charged with studying civil rights matters and advising the president and Congress. It also issues its own federal rights enforcement reports.

Malee Craft, director of the Denver office of the commission, which oversees advisory committees in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and North and South Dakota, said Police Rich St. John and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder are among those who have agreed to testify at the hearing.

There will also be representatives of School District 2, Montana State University Billings, the Indian Health Service and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Craft said the state advisory committees choose what topics to study based on their own experiences and their familiarity with their states. The South Dakota advisory committee is working on its own report about border town discrimination, Craft said, and other committees have looked at voting rights issues.

Craft said the Montana committee will submit a report based on the testimony in Billings, but it could also continue its investigations with additional hearings next year. Kircher said there had been talk of holding a similar hearing in Hardin.

Another member of the advisory committee is Kiah Abbey, a native of Billings who graduated from West High in 2009. She is the Eastern Montana program director for Forward Montana, an organization that works to train, mobilize and elect progressive young leaders.

Abbey called discrimination against Native Americans “the most pressing problem in Montana, in terms of civil rights.” A lot of Montanans consider discrimination against Indians a relic of the past, she said, but if anything the kind of discrimination prevalent now is “even more insidious” because it often goes unacknowledged.

Although she’s only 25, Abbey said she can remember hearing people in Billings say you should never go to Wal-Mart at the end of the month because that’s when Native Americans “get their checks.”

“I hope that my generation can do a good amount of work to challenge those problems,” she said.

Also on the Montana committee is Dennis Taylor, who lives in Helena but was formerly the Billings city administrator. He is also on the board of the Montana ACLU and chairs the Montana Human rights Commission.

“They are a good bunch that have agreed to come,” Taylor said of those scheduled to testify on Aug. 29. “I feel like there’s a good cross-section of presenters.”

The entire event is free and open to the public and there is free parking in the shrine lot. The committee will also accept written testimony submitted to ebohor@usccr.gov by Sept. 29.

For more information on the national commission and the state advisory committees, go to www.uscc.gov.

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