The American Indian Governance and Policy Institute, which kicked off its first year at the University of Montana this semester, was founded with the intention of providing legal resources to American Indian tribes.

Assistant Professor Heather Cahoon, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe, started this institute as a way to advocate for investment of state money for the tribal community. Cahoon said tribes do not have a legislative service division, which is a part of the government that provides resources, information and counseling to legislatures. It also researches potential policies and outlines their advantages and disadvantages, which helps legislatures make more objective decisions.

Cahoon said most tribes have attorneys who help with legal services, but who do not address bigger issues, such as how to grow the economy.

“[Tribes] didn’t have staff at their disposal to help them make decisions that are really important,” Cahoon said.

The American Indian Governance and Policy Institute aims to provide this service to American Indian tribes. Cahoon is currently working on a year-long tribal public policy assessment in which she is researching the legal needs of American Indian tribes. Once she completes the project, she said she will have information that will help the policy institute for the next decade.

The institute was approved by the Montana Board of Regents in March after a year of planning done by Cahoon and her team. However, because of COVID-19, its progress slowed until it finally became established this fall. By summer of 2021, Cahoon hopes to have a fellowship that will allow graduate students to assist with tribal policy research.

The ultimate goal of the American Indian Governance and Policy Institute, Cahoon said, is to create resources and gather information that American Indian tribes can use to develop legal policies.

“People come from every lock of life, whether it is ranchers, teachers, bringing different backgrounds and strengths,” Cahoon said. “I feel like there needs to be a research entity to be available for them.”

Another core faculty member who is assisting with this project, Sara Rinfret, agrees that this project addresses an important topic. Rinfret helps with Cahoon’s research for this project and will help to facilitate student involvement. She agreed to help with the American Indian Governance and Policy Institute because she believes in the cause and believes Cahoon is the best person to pursue it.

“We want to make sure the voices of the voiceless are represented and making sure all communities have the same opportunities through the lens of public policy,” Rinfret said.