BILLINGS — With a quick and unanimous vote Monday, the Montana High School Association's executive board reversed course and decided to allow tribal flags to be at midcourt during the national anthem at district, divisional and state basketball events.
The vote came about a month after the Fort Peck Tribes filed a grievance with the MHSA over a Poplar High School flag-bearer being told to stand on the endline during the opening night of the Class B state boys tournament in Belgrade. The incident elicited a region-wide protest that culminated in a University of Montana law professor writing an opinion piece in High Country News and at 406mtsports.com entitled "Bigotry, ignorance and high school basketball in Montana".
Starting next year, any Montana tribal flag can be presented alongside the American and Montana state flags during the playing of the national anthem at postseason basketball tournaments.
"I’m just glad that things are changing," Poplar athletic director Coy Weeks told 406mtsports.com. "It really shows that we’re making progress."
Nothing seemed amiss to MHSA executive director Mark Beckman on March 6 as he readied for the first national anthem of the Class B state basketball tournament.
The Poplar boys were preparing for their first-round game, and one of the school’s cheerleaders held the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal flag on the endline of the Special Events Center court. Beckman told 406mtsports.com that someone overseeing the Poplar cheerleaders asked if the flag bearer should stand on the line, and he answered yes.
A couple weeks later, the Fort Peck Tribes filed the grievance over that interaction. In a letter, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Executive Board argued that the MHSA “violated the Montana Constitution, Montana law and the Tribes’ rights as sovereign nations” by not allowing the Poplar cheerleader to stand with the tribal flag at center court during the anthem, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
Beckman said the cheerleader was restricted to the endline because of an MHSA policy that only allowed American and Montana flags to be presented at center court during national anthems at postseason basketball tournaments.
The old policy, which is still listed on MHSA.org in the organization’s Basketball Tournament Procedure Manual, featured these two lines in its “flag presentations” section: “Only the U.S. and Montana flags can presented (sic) before the start of each tournament session. Other groups can have their flag on the endline during the presentation of the U.S. and Montana flags.”
Beckman wasn’t sure if the policy has always been enforced. Glasgow, for instance, allowed Poplar to present the tribal flag at midcourt during national anthems at the District 2B tournament in February, according to Weeks.
The MHSA has allowed pre-anthem blanket ceremonies at tournaments, Beckman said.
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Neither Weeks nor Beckman heard any concerns or complaints during last month’s state tournament, they said. In Beckman’s 22 years at the MHSA, he’s never encountered any concerns with the flag presentation policy, and he’s not sure why they came up now.
“I just don’t know if it’s been challenged before," Weeks said. "I’m sure there are other tribes that maybe wanted to present it because we all identify with that, with where we live, with which tribe we’re from.”
On March 8, the Fort Peck Journal posted a photo to Facebook that showed Beckman next to the Poplar cheerleader holding the flag before the Indians' overtime win over Three Forks. The caption on the Facebook post expressed disappointment that the MHSA “wouldn’t allow the Poplar cheerleaders to carry the Fort Peck tribal flag out to the floor during the national anthem.”
A week after the Tribune’s report about the Fork Peck Tribes’ grievance, the High Country News published the opinion piece by Monte Mills, a law professor and co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at Montana. Mills mentioned the MHSA’s flag presentation policy in his piece.
“Aside from the silent but clear discriminatory impact on tribes (what “other groups” have flags?), this so-called guideline and its enforcement prevent the rightful representation of tribal nations as governments alongside their state and federal counterparts,” Mills wrote.
Weeks, a Fort Peck tribal member, echoed Mills’ sentiment.
“We are a sovereign nation. When I’m here, when I’m living on my reservation, I have to go by tribal laws,” Weeks said. “I’m considered a citizen of my tribe. When I leave, I’m a citizen of Montana, obviously. It’s almost like a dual-citizen type thing for Native Americans.”
Fort Peck tribal council member Jestin Dupree and Daniel Wenner, an attorney representing Fort Peck Tribes, delivered testimony in front of the MHSA executive board Monday. Beckman made a recommendation in favor of amending the flag presentation policy, and the executive board unanimously approved it.
“Was all but a few minutes,” Beckman said.