Civil rights panel plans ‘bordertown’ forum in Hardin

Gwen

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Advisory committee members Gwen Kircher, left, and chairwoman Norma Bixby listen to testimony during the bordertown forum in Billings in 2016. Kircher now chairs the committee.

Following up on a public forum held in Billings in 2016, the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a similar hearing in Hardin on Thursday, March 29.

The event, officially billed as “A Community Forum on Bordertown Discrimination in Montana,” is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Hardin Middle School, 611 W. Fifth Street.

Committee Chair Gwen Kircher, a resident of Billings, said the bias and racism aimed at Native Americans in Montana is just like the bias and racism aimed at African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities in other parts of the country.

“We have the same exact problem as urban America, except that our problem is red and white instead of black and white,” she said. “This is not an isolated problem. This is a problem we have in our country against people of color, period.”

As happened at the forum in Billings, held at the Shrine Auditorium on Aug. 29, 2016, the committee will take testimony from law enforcement officials and others in an attempt to learn about discrimination that affects Native Americans in education, healthcare administration and services, law enforcement and criminal justice.

Kircher said officials scheduled to appear before the committee include the Rosebud, Big Horn and Yellowstone county attorneys and sheriffs, the Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief and U.S. Attorney for Montana Kurt Alme.

Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder testified at the 2016 forum in Billings, Kircher said, as did Billings Police Chief Rich St. John, and both have been invited back to answer follow-up questions from the committee.

The day is scheduled to begin with a smudging ceremony at 9, with appearances by the officials taking place from 10 to 4 p.m. Testimony from members of the public will be taken from 4 to 5 p.m., though Kircher said she was working to expand that time frame to at least two hours, as was the case at the Billings forum.

Each state has its own advisory committee to the  U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and each committee periodically chooses its own topics to investigate. After forums and other research is done, the committees send their findings and recommendations to the national commission, which advises the president and Congress on civil rights matters.

Kircher said it was always the Montana committee’s plan to hold at least one other hearing, preferably in Hardin, and combining the findings of the 2016 forum with findings of the second event to create a report that could be submitted to the national commission.

The committee had hoped to hold a second forum long before this, Kircher said, but committee members have to be reappointed every November, and because of the presidential election in 2016, those reappointments did not happen that year, and finally were made last summer.

After the forum in Hardin, she said, the committee will review all the testimony and ask individual members of the committee to come up with recommendations for dealing with anti-Indian discrimination in Montana. Then, the committee will meet again, probably at the end of summer, before submitting a final report by the end of the year.

Kircher said she has been trying to get the word out to Indian Country about the forum, and letting people know that whether they wish to speak at the forum or not, they can submit written testimony, signed or anonymous, until April 30.

Written comments can be sent to the Western Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 300 N. Los Angeles St., Suite 2010, Los Angeles, CA 90012, faxed to 213-894-0508, or emailed to Angelica Trevino at atrevino@usccr.gov.

Those who can’t make the meeting but want to listen in can call 1-888-293-6960 and use the conference-call ID of 4985239. People with hearing impairments can follow the proceedings by first calling the Federal Relay Service at 1-800-877-8339 and providing the service with the conference call number and conference ID number.

For more information on the forum, call the Western Regional Office at 213-894-3437.

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