Indian Country Op-Ed: Standing Up Against a Threat to Indian Country

By Sen. Jon Tester

Montana’s Indian country is sacred ground for all of the Big Sky’s tribes. Tribal lands safeguard and preserve ceremonial sites from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains. Each site deserves our everlasting respect and protection.

But the U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that undermines the sanctity of these places and the sovereignty of Montana’s tribes. As Montana’s only member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I want all Montanans to understand the consequences of this bill.

The deceptively named National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act (H.R. 1505) hands the U.S. Department of Homeland Security unprecedented power to build roads, fences, buildings, or even watchtowers on public land administered by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture within 100 miles of Montana’s northern border.

That territory includes five of Montana’s seven Indian reservations.

H.R. 1505 permits the Department of Homeland Security to unilaterally waive public land laws in order to achieve whatever it deems as “operational control” of the border area. That means if government agents wanted to pave over sacred burial grounds because they believe it might help them catch a suspect, they could do so without asking tribes.

That flies in the face of decades-old treaties and tribal sovereignty.

H.R. 1505 was written with no public input, denying Montana’s tribal governments the opportunity to even have a say in this legislation.

What’s worse, House members recently rejected an amendment that would have specifically exempted tribal lands from H.R. 1505. The amendment would have given tribal leaders a rightful say in how their lands are used.

When I visit Indian Country, tribal leaders tell me about the need for job opportunities, access to health care, for improved public safety and education, and for good infrastructure. Montana’s tribes deserve sovereignty, and a respectful relationship between our governments.

All of Montana’s Congressional delegation should stand in opposition to H.R. 1505.

Instead, some are seeking a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. After all, government agencies already operate under an agreement that is working well to protect our northern border.

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