Building the Native Movement: Training and Empowerment in Billings, Montana

From defending treaty obligations such as water rights and access to basic health care, to fighting institutional racism in schools and state legislation, to fighting the effects of colonialism in our food systems that are literally killing Indian people, there is no shortage of work to be done in Indian Country.

Across Indian Country, Native people are dealing with amagnitude of issues that affect day-to-day life. While it may be easy to find social service programs that slow the weeping wounds of daily life, one is pressed to find community organizing efforts that address the systemic change that is so desperately needed in these communities.

In early February, a group of members organizers from Oklahoma’s Mvskokee Creek Food Sovreignty Council, Montana’s Indian People’s Action and Rocky Boys and Girls Club, and South Dakota’s Native American Organizing Project came together in Billings, Montana, to discuss organizing in our Native communities. They came to learn from each other and hone their community organizing skills in a training led by the Alliance for a Just Society. Lasting relationships were built at this training, and from these connections we hope to see the growth of a Native movement — a movement that reaches across the country, throughout both rural and urban communities and beyond family, clan and tribe.

Since the training, organizers have already banded together to collectively organize grasstop leaders to call on members of Congress and demand the complete funding of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), a piece of legislation included in the historic federal Affordable Care Act that passed last March. The IHCIA, essential to Native people’s basic health, has not received funding for over a decade and continues to be ignored by members of Congress and the mainstream public.

Another battle being fought across Indian Country involves the access to safe recreational areas on reservations, a fight that is a part of the larger movement to conquer childhood obesity in Indian communities. Groups have been working with their tribal councils to institute policy changes that would increase the availability of healthy foods provided by tribal health and human service programs and local public schools.

In Montana, organizers with Indian People’s Action have been fighting against moving to becoming an exclusively vote-by-mail state, which would disproportionately affect the state’s Native vote and likely decrease the number of Native people who participate in elections. While organizers are fighting in their local communities, coming together for a national training with other Native organizers brought a new inspiration and a new sense of urgency to our issues.

This collective sense of urgency and action was a powerful product of the training weekend. Now it is time to use this inspiration, along with new skills, to build the Native movement.

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