By Robert Lucke
Tribal Chairman since 1996, Rocky Boy native son Bert Corcoran is retiring this year.
Born the son of Delia and Joe Corcoran, Bert Corcoran has had most all jobs in education fields that Rocky Boy and many other places could offer.
"I graduated from high school in Box Elder and went two quarters to school at Northern," Corcoran related. "But then that summer my mother passed away and I just wanted to go some place, and a teacher said I would like Western Montana College at Dillon. I did like it and worked and went to school like Smith and Barney, I earned my way through. I didn't have any BIA loans. I worked for a dollar an hour during school and on the railroad in the summertime."
Then Corcoran was drafted into the Korean War. After getting out, he got a GI Bill and finished his education.
Telling about where he has taught and worked on programs is a primer of schools all over Montana.
"I went teaching in Absarokee as a teacher/principal and went to Fraser the next year. I got my master's degree in 1957 and headed for California," said Corcoran, smiling. "I worked two years there as director of guidance and testing at a school in the Redwoods. Then I heard that the Rocky Boy School was going from a BIA to a public school and I came here as elementary principal for three years, and then I worked in Havre on Federal programs for seven years.
"Later, School District 87 was organized and I came back as superintendent of schools," Corcoran continued. "I stayed three years and went to South Dakota to work on my doctorate and came back and worked for the tribe as business manager for a year, a BIA loan officer for a year and back to superintendent at Rocky Boy. Then I went to Pryor as superintendent, and Poplar for three years and Lodgegrass for two years."
In 1989, Corcoran retired and came back to Rocky Boy to farm and enjoy the good life. However, that did not last long. Soon enough, it became clear to Corcoran that as Tribal Chairman he could help Rocky Boy in numerous ways.
"Before the 1996 elections, I was thinking about running and I had people urging me to run, so I did and won. But I'll tell you, from 1996 to 2000, that is enough," said Corcoran, laughing.
"The reason I decided to run in the first place was to bring the tribe into financial order with the help of the other council members," said Corcoran. "That was fairly well completed within the first two years of the election. We are now out of debt and we have money in the trust fund."
Corcoran marks that as one of his successes.
"I leave here knowing that our finances are in pretty good order," continued Corcoran.
Even though Corcoran had little to do with Rocky Boy's water compact, setting that was a major accomplishment during his administration.
"During the time I was here, they settled the water compact which gives us a basic guarantee of so much water for our reservation," said Corcoran. "We have always had it, but this is the first time that it has been adjudicated. And it gives us some additional storage. We will be rebuilding some dams like East Fork, Bonneau, Brown's Dam and Towe's Dam.
Corcoran credits Roger St. Pierre, Bruce Sunchild and Jim Morsette with getting the compact for Rocky Boy.
Not all has been successes, according to Corcoran. He sits back in his office chair and does not have to think even a moment about his greatest battle.
"I guess fighting Indian fighters in Congress has been my biggest frustration," related Corcoran. "All the time there are people who attach riders to our legislation. In 1994, with the self-government compact, the whole 580 or so tribes in the United States have just taken a different turn. To me that is good, but tribes have to learn how to deal with it. It gives full responsibility to the tribes to set priorities.
"Under the BIA, the formula for funding was 85 percent salaries and 15 percent of the money for programs," continued Corcoran. "So there were never many programs. Self-governance gives you a lump sum and you decide. Tribes have to be careful not to put it all into salaries or there will be no program funds. That could happen if they (the tribes) don't pay attention. It is not an endless pot of money."
Another frustration is the 70 percent unemployment at Rocky Boy and not being able to do anything about it at the present time.
Still, in the quiet of the Tribal Chairman's office, Corcoran is optimistic about the future.
"I see a lot of good things that can come about. The future lies in the hands of the people. I like sovereignty, because it gives us the chance we have been looking for," added Corcoran. "But it is going to take some dedicated leadership. The new millennium for me offers a new hope, but our people have to be aware."
So once again, Bert Corcoran rides off into the sunset to his ranch and retirement. Well, maybe and maybe not.
"I am retiring once again for awhile," said Corcoran, again laughing. "I guess if I venture out again, it is going to be in the area of capitalization on the Reservation maybe in the form of a savings and loan. That is a facility greatly needed to go hand and hand with economic development."