HAMILTON (AP) — A meeting between Ravalli County and tribal leaders over a plan to place a sacred site in a federal trust took a contentious turn when a county official repeated a slur derogatory toward American Indians.
Confederated Salish and Kootenai officials met with county commissioners Wednesday in Hamilton to explain the value of the sacred site known as the Medicine Tree, located in the southern part of the Bitterroot Valley, the Ravalli Republic (http://bit.ly/18WZkNN) reported.
Ravalli County commissioners oppose the tribes' plan to put 58 acres of tribally owned land into trust with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, saying the county would lose $808 in annual property taxes.
The meeting ended on a sour note when county planning board chairman Jan Wisniewski of Darby said he'd recently gone on a fact-finding trip around the state, during which he visited with law enforcement officials in Havre who complained about their jails being filled with "drunken Indians."
Tribal council member Steve Lozar said he was "deeply, deeply offended" by Wisniewski's remark.
Tribal members traveled to Hamilton with a "good heart" to discuss issues important to both sides, he said.
"We are citizens of the United States," he said. "We serve in the military at a higher rate than others. This is our homeland. I'm offended by those comments."
Before the contention erupted, Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht said county officials were "baffled" that the tribes wanted to put the land into federal trust rather than maintain outright ownership.
County officials expressed concerns that the tribe might build a casino or a racetrack that could impact county services. And they said they were worried about losing funding to pay for the services it provides to the property, including law enforcement and fire protection.
The tribes purchased the land in 1998 and recently applied to the BIA to put it into trust. The tribe has placed 104 parcels of land in trust over the last four years, officials said.
Teresa Wall McDonald, the tribes' acting land director, said putting the land in trust offers a number of benefits, but the main goal is to protect the important religious site in perpetuity.
Lozar said the council honors the spirituality of the site and would not consider putting a casino there.
"We want to possess this holy ground," he said. "We want to possess it in trust, as is our right."