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(Many Paths)
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New Web Site Aims To Set Record Straight On Flathead Indian Reservation
by Vince Devlin of the Missoula (MT) Missoulian

PABLO - The call, from a University of Montana student, Rob McDonald remembers, came out of the blue.

Marli Harmon was writing a paper for a class on tribal government. She'd found the phone number for McDonald, spokesman for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, on the CSKT Web site and dialed it.

While the non-tribal member obviously didn't know much about how Indian tribes operate, McDonald says from his office here on the Flathead Indian Reservation, "she asked a ton of questions, insightful questions."

When the interview was finished, McDonald says Harmon told him, "I didn't know any of that."

Then came the kicker.

Marli Harmon told McDonald she grew up on the Flathead Reservation, in Polson.

The call helped spur McDonald and the tribes to move forward on "ideas that I've been exploring personally for four years," he says.

The result: "The Rez We Live On," a Web campaign to set straight what McDonald says are commonly held misperceptions about the tribes and their people.

Indians get free health care? No, a voice at explains.

The 1855 Hellgate Treaty - when the tribes ceded 22 million acres of their territory to the federal government for $120,000 and the

1.3 million acres that make up the Flathead Reservation - promised Indians health care too.

But "today the Indian health care system receives just over half the funding needed to provide a bare minimum of care," the voice says." There's simply not enough funding for basic preventative checks like colonoscopies for elders. In fact, most tribal members must also use private insurance. Most tribal members struggle with health care costs, just like everyone else."

Using short videos with rudimentary animation and voiceovers, the new Web site - launched Tuesday - offers CSKT's explanation about seven different areas, with plans to add at least three more.

It explains how Tribal Police and the CSKT court system work, both on their own and in conjunction with state and local authorities, in one. In another, it dispels the notion that the federal or state governments hand out checks to tribal members.

Per capita payments are each tribal member's share of any profits made on CSKT's many business ventures, the Web site says, with most of the money coming from the leasing of Kerr Dam to PPL Montana. Worth approximately $8 million annually, the money from Kerr Dam is the largest single factor in the $400 checks each of the 7,200 CSKT members receive three times a year, in the winter, spring and summer.

"While a number of programs receive federal funding, none of that money is distributed by per capita payments to individual tribal members," the voice says.

Marli Harmon told McDonald she was surprised she knew so little about the workings of the reservation she had lived on for years.

"Why don't I know this?" she asked him.

The Indian Education for All Act helped expose all Montana students to Indian history and culture, McDonald says, but not to the tribal governments that affect everyone who lives on a reservation.

"Generation upon generation have been repeating information that's not correct," McDonald says, "to the point that it's offensive, and derails even the most basic conversation."

Indians pay no taxes? Not true, McDonald says.

It's another topic he wants to add to the Web site, but involves winnowing down more than 150 years of complicated rules, legislation and treaties into a three-minute "movie" that is "bulletproof, accurate and digestible," McDonald says.

Indians pay federal income taxes, and property taxes on fee land, McDonald says. Tribal land doesn't come off the tax rolls until it's put into a federal trust. Last year, McDonald says, the tribes paid $125,000 in property taxes to Lake County.

But tribal members are not required to pay state taxes, because the tribes existed and governed themselves before Montana existed. The Hellgate Treaty, wherein they agreed to abide by federal tax laws, among other things, was signed 34 years before Montana achieved statehood.

Still, tribal members pay some state taxes, such as the state gasoline tax - a bone of contention for many.

Adding taxes as a subject at "The Rez We Live On" "presents a challenge in getting it just right," McDonald says. Similarly, the question of sovereignty is "complicated, but important, on why we have the right to govern our people and our lands," McDonald says.

The Web site, designed by saltStudio of Missoula, has a section called "frequently asked questions" with just one ("Who created The Rez We Live On?") listed so far.

McDonald says he'd like to use that area to answer more questions or dispel more myths about the tribes. Heard the tribes have $100 million in cash lying around? Ask.

"I've heard it's a billion, and it's all in offshore accounts," McDonald says. "All I can tell you is what our chairman (James Steele Jr.) says when he hears these things: 'I wish they could show us where all this money is, because it'd come in pretty handy.' "

A billboard advertising campaign on the reservation will attempt to drive people to the Web site.

McDonald says the idea for the short videos came from his boyhood. "Schoolhouse Rock!" aired during Saturday morning cartoons on ABC and featured animated educational musical short films that taught kids about science, math, grammar and more.

"I think they were imprinted into the minds of people of my generation," McDonald says. "There's a power to this approach."

"The Rez We Live On," McDonald says, is "the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, as told by us, as factually as we can tell it - who we are, and how we got to this point."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at

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