HELENA — Behind a strong contingent of supporters, the Fort Peck Tribes received a unanimous vote from the Montana High School Association executive board on Monday to amend a longstanding policy that restricted tribal flags from being presented at state basketball tournaments.
According to MHSA executive director Mark Beckman, it’s unclear when the policy was implemented, but this was the first time in his 22 years with the MHSA that it was challenged. The Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux Tribes voiced concerns after their tribal flag wasn’t allowed to be presented at last month’s Class B boys and girls basketball state tournaments in Belgrade.
“Particularly for Poplar school, which is the town I live in, the boys basketball team hasn’t been in the state tournament for 34 years,” said Jestin Dupree, a Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux tribal council member and Poplar school board member.
“We live on the Fort Peck Reservation, as well as there’s other tribal reservations throughout the state of Montana,” Dupree continued. “It’s really important that the flags are honored along with the state flag and the U.S. flag, because we are an independent nation living within the state of Montana. But we work along with the state of Montana. State basketball tournament, the U.S. flag went out, the Poplar cheerleaders were taking the state flag out, and the tribal flag was stopped. A lot of people were disappointed back home.”
While the Montana flag and U.S. flag were presented before Poplar’s first-round game against Three Forks, the Fort Peck tribal flag was relegated to the baseline, just off the playing surface in accordance with MHSA flag presentation policy. That policy stated that “only the U.S. and Montana flags” could be presented.
After hearing testimony from attorney Daniel Wenner, who was representing the Fort Peck Tribes, and Dupree, the MHSA executive board voted to amend the policy. Beckman made the initial recommendation, emphasizing it wasn’t a subject to take lightly. Rather, Beckman said, there was a simple solution.
The new updated policy, which was provided by Dupree, now states that “only the flags of the U.S., Montana, and Montana Tribes or Nations can be presented before the start of each tournament session.”
“Maybe it’s just a miscommunication, but it’s an outdated policy that really needed to be updated,” Dupree said. “I really don’t think any bad feelings, any harsh feelings, no animosity. Again, it was just a misunderstanding.”
Dupree and Wenner were flanked by a number of community members in support, including Senator Jen Gross (D – Billings), who introduced Senate Bill 319 in 2017. SB319 allows tribal regalia at public events.
There are eight Tribal Nations in Montana: Blackfeet Tribe, Chippewa Cree Tribe, confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Tribe, Fort Belknap Tribes, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Little Shell Chippewa Tribe.
“It’s not only a Fort Peck issue, there are eight tribal organizations in this state,” Dupree said. “I was just doing it on behalf of not only Fort Peck but in regard to everybody else, so it was nice to get the support.”