A rambling weekend post by Secretary of State Corey Stapleton comparing Native American tribes' relationships with Montana and the U.S. government to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict drew objections in Indian Country Monday.
"Species, languages, races all adapt and assimilate or they fade away,” Stapleton wrote in an email.
The email was posted on the Secretary of State's website and also was sent to every business that registers with the office and does not later opt out, as well as those who sign up for it, came with the subject line “We Were Here First."
“No, no, it’s not even fair,” Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said of Stapleton's comparison. “It’s not even apples to oranges. It’s apples to onions."
Stapleton, who is running in the Republican primary for U.S. House, wrote he recently returned from a trip to Israel, paid for by the American Jewish Committee and attended by nine other Secretaries of State and a lieutenant governor. He said that Jewish people and Palestinians both wanting to occupy the same land are "dealing with the same thing! Kinda," as compared to the Little Shell and other tribal nations in Montana.
The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians was finally recognized by the federal government under the $738 billion defense spending bill President Trump signed Dec. 20. Stapleton mentioned Gray by name in his newsletter, a reference Gray said he wished the Secretary of State would have asked about first.
Stapleton did not return an email to his office or text message seeking comment for this story Monday.
Stapleton did tell the Great Falls Tribune Monday the newsletter was meant to "drive interesting conversation," the paper reported. "It's not meant to be a know-all. I'm not an expert on these issues, and I support the Little Shell Tribe," he told the paper.
Mark Trahant is the editor of Indian Country Today and member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. He raised concerns Monday about the parallels Stapleton drew and said “there ought to be an immediate apology” from Stapleton.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any Secretary of State or any official to first compare people with a group of people at war and second to demand assimilation essentially,” Trahant said.
At several places in his newsletter, Stapleton discusses assimilation. One passage reads, in part " … I think this question of assimilating tribes versus separating them will not be going away anytime soon. Luckily in Montana, we have lots of land and not many people. Native Americans and Hutterites have plenty of room to segregate themselves, while the Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, German, African, etc., tend to blend into our towns and cities without much fanfare."
State Rep. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat from Missoula who is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, pushed back on that statement.
“The idea of assimilating versus separating, I think both of those questions need to go away,” said Morigeau, who is running for state Auditor. “When I read this, what it means to me is this person doesn't see me or other Montanans who are Indian as Montanans … and this question of assimilation or separation is like taking a step back in time.”
Chris La Tray, an author and Chippewa-Cree Métis who is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe, said assimilation has a long and negative connotation that traces back generations.
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“It is frustrating because that goes all the way back to boarding schools, with the notion of ‘kill the Indian, save the man,’” La Tray said. “They wanted to eliminate the Native parts of who we were to make us assimilate as 'regular Americans.' We’re under no obligation to do that. Many of us don’t want to do that. I consider myself a U.S. citizen secondary to a citizen of the Little Shell people."
Trahant said the idea of assimilation or segregation ties into an “either-or” construction he said isn’t an appropriate way to look at Native communities in Montana.
“It’s unfortunate that people see either-or as a framework when life is more complicated than that,” Trahant said. "Tribal nations and their citizens are also part of Montana and the U.S., and in many cases benefit greatly from each other."
Another item in the newsletter to which Gray objected was Stapleton's characterization the Little Shell tribe "became somewhat 'lost' without a piece of land to call their own.”
“We’ve never been lost,” Gray said. “We’ve always been in our little communities throughout Montana, whether it be on the Hi-Line, in Choteau, in Babb, in Helena, in Great Falls, Hill 57. We’ve never been lost.”
Gray also said Stapleton was “not even close” to accurate when he wrote at the end of the letter the tribe “was just recently given 200 acres for a new reservation.”
“We have to buy 200 acres. Nothing’s free,” Gray said, adding that the tribe’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C., is still clarifying the details for him.
A book called “‘All the Real Indians Died Off’ and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans,” written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, says “of all the myths that surround American Indians, none is as confounding as the misunderstanding that the federal government gave Indians their lands.”
“Belief in the conquest myth and benevolence of the U.S. underscores the tenacity of the manifest destiny narrative, but it fails to change the actual reality that all of Turtle Island (the North American continent) has been Indian land since tens of thousands of years before European invasion. And it does not change the fact that it was Indians who gave up lands to the U.S. in treaties, not the other way around,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes.
Gray said to him, much of Stapleton's newsletter was too convoluted to understand what the Secretary of State meant.
“I couldn’t make much of it, where he was trying to go with it,” Gray said. “I don't know what he’s implying, and it wasn’t very clear what his angle was.”
Gray does wish, he said, Stapleton would have asked him first before including his name.
"If he wants to allude to Native Americans in an article, then he should have at least made sure what he’s writing is clear and accurate, because a lot of things go misconstrued, and in the long run it’s going to be a problem for him, not us. He’s the one running for Congress,” Gray said.