Ravalli Co. planning board chair's comments spur commission apology to tribal leaders
Updated On: Nov 27 2013 10:50:40 PM MST
Ravalli County commissioners have written a formal apology to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.
Jan Wisniewski, speaking as a private citizen, is quoted at a public meeting, as making references to "drunken Indians."
It happened during a meeting between commissioners and tribal leaders, over a plan to hand over what is known as the Medicine Tree, and its surrounding 58 acres of sacred tribal land, to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Ravalli County appealed the idea.
Commissioners said they are concerned about lost tax revenue partly, and what effect federal control would have on the tribe and on Ravalli County.
"The board apologizes if public comments caused offense," read County Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows, to a crowd of people who gathered in commission chambers Wednesday.
Burrows said commissioners value the cultural heritage of the Salish people. But remarks made by Planning Board Chairman Jan Wisniewski cut deep, with many calling for his immediate removal.
"It's so offensive," said Dave Bull, "it's very racist and a public rebuke was absolutely necessary."
Reached by phone, Wisniewski said his comments were misrepresented. His attorney said Wisniewski testified as a private citizen, and the commission had neither the legal nor moral right to apologize for that.
We dug deeper into the minutes of that meeting. In them, Wisniewski said he made site visits to a number counties and said he found "Indians from different tribes come in (to the non-reservation areas) and get drunk and try to run back into the reservation so they don’t get caught."
Tribal leaders who heard it said they were deeply offended. So are hundreds of protestors.
Commissioner Suzy Foss apologized to her guests immediately.
But some critics said even the board of commissioners tone at the meeting was insensitive.
"It felt like an inquisition," said Chris Hockman, "from my position as a bystander."
Commissioners said they only wanted questions answered as to why the tribes wanted to transfer control to the BIA. They said they want to know what could happen in the future.
"The questions were tough," said Burrows, but he said the questions were for the benefit of not only of Ravalli County, but of the tribes also.
University of Montana Adjunct Faculty member Suzanne Shope said federal control of a site like the Medicine Tree offers more thorough protection of the site.
Commissioners plan to take the letter of apology directly to tribal representatives, with the gift of an historic photograph. It's of the Medicine Tree, which is surrounded by Native visitors.
A representative of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe said there would be no comment at this time.
So what's next? The commission could remove the planning board chairman, wait until his term expires in December, or he could be reappointed. The board is still weighing all options.
We can also expect a response from Mr. Wisniewski's attorney later in the week.
The board is also weighing options on whether to keep the appeal going or to lift it.