'The Cartels Know This': Biden's Border Crisis Pushes Montana's Indian Country to the Brink  

'The Biden administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs treats us worse than white people do,' Indian leader says

R: U.S. Sen. Jon Tester L: Migrant encampment in El Paso (Getty Images)
June 20, 2024

BOZEMAN, Mont.—The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation sits just 40 miles from the Canadian border, but threats to its sovereignty—and to tribal members’ lives—are coming all the way from Mexico.

A rising cartel presence—bringing increased drugs and violence to a community that already had plenty of both—has left some tribal members believing that the White House has all but left them behind.

"The Biden administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs treats us worse than white people do," said Jeffrey Stiffarm, who serves as president of the Fort Belknap Indian community. "We’re not getting no help from the FBI, Border Patrol, none of them have stepped up with more money and resources, and the cartels know this."

The fact that the Aaniiih and the Nakoda tribes—to which the federal government ceded control of the reservation after treaties signed in 1851 and 1855—must now grapple with the dangers posed by Mexican cartels is emblematic of how the border crisis under President Joe Biden has spread far beyond the American South and Southwest.

And while communities from New York City to Whitewater, Wisconsin, have felt the effects of the more than seven million illegal crossings since Biden took office, the border crisis’s consequences are especially felt in Montana’s Indian country—an already vulnerable population with a roughly 34 percent poverty rate and a pattern of addiction and crime that frustrates tribal leaders. The Aaniiih and the Nakoda claim roughly 7,000 members between them, around half of whom are said to live on the reservation.

Many tribal members are so concerned about possible reprisals from the cartels that they often avoid speaking about their reservations’ problems in public. Several members of Montana’s tribes requested to speak on background with the Washington Free Beacon, citing instances of members who have recently gone missing as their rationale.

"Everybody knows there’s been an increase in crime," said one female member of the Crow Tribe, which is located roughly 80 miles southeast of Billings. "Official people in our tribe are all aware of, you know, crazy stuff happening on our reservations, especially with drugs. Even just like two weeks ago there was a boy who was found in the river with a gunshot."

At least two Indian reservations in Montana have declared states of emergency over the last two years in response to the increase in drugs and crime on their lands. The Fort Peck Reservation, in their 2023 declaration, cited a steep increase in juvenile crimes, including sexual assault and murder, that were almost entirely related to fentanyl trafficking or use. The previous year, the Blackfeet Nation, one of the largest in the United States, declared a state of emergency after 17 members overdosed in one week. Four died.

Law enforcement sources who spoke with the Free Beacon said there are at least two Mexican cartels operating in the state. More than 3 million fentanyl pills were seized by the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Rocky Mountain Field Division last year, a nearly 80 percent year-over-year increase.

Some tribal members hope that the uptick in crime will bring more scrutiny to how the border is impacting some of the state’s most vulnerable populations. House Republicans held a hearing on the issue in April, where tribal leaders in Montana testified about an increase in crime on reservations.

"Indian reservations in Montana and Wyoming have experienced terrible violence, rising crime, and countless drug overdoses that are destroying their communities," a House report concluded. "President Biden has failed Indian country and tribal communities."

Attorney General Merrick Garland visited the Crow Tribe in March for a roundtable discussion on those issues. There, Garland pledged to "put more resources directly into the hands of our law enforcement community partners working to drive down violent crime and improve public safety."

So far, tribal members say they have not seen tremendous results. For Montana AFL-CIO executive secretary Jason Small, who is also a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, "nobody ever gives a shit about the reservations" outside of an election year.

"I think more people are focusing on the reservations now because of all the fentanyl," Small said.

Although some on the state’s reservations think injecting politics into their issues is nothing but a cynical attempt by either party to win votes, there is no ignoring the November election. Sen. Jon Tester (D.) is considered the most vulnerable incumbent in a state that supported former president Donald Trump twice by double digits.

Tester’s seat may well decide which party controls the Senate. His 2018 reelection was fueled in part by winning counties where reservations are located. Native Indians comprise roughly 6.5 percent of the state’s population, more than twice Tester’s margin of victory that year.

There are warning signs for Tester as he fights for his political life. Turnout on the state’s reservations significantly dipped in 2022 and internal GOP polling data reviewed by the Free Beacon has Republicans feeling confident.

Tester has walked an awkward line since Biden took office. Although he styles himself as an independent thinker committed to good governance—even featuring footage of a southern border wall in one of his television ads—Tester is one of Biden’s most reliable votes in the Senate, according to 538.

And no other issue energizes Republican voters, of whom Tester will need a significant portion to win his race, more than immigration. That the open border is now striking a segment of his base further complicates his reelection bid.

"I kind of voted Democrat for my adult life, but looking at the bigger picture I have to look at where both stand," said Stiffarm. "Personally, what I saw was that the Republicans are willing to help more than the Democrats."

State Democrats are intensely aware of how critical the native vote is to Tester’s already longshot chances of holding his seat. In March, both the Montana Democratic Party and Tester’s reelection campaign announced "Big Sky Victory," which will pour seven figures into get-out-the-vote efforts on the state’s reservations.

More than 20 field offices will be set up as part of the effort, which the state Democratic party said will constitute a "juggernaut organizing effort."

"Big Sky Victory is the earliest, best-funded organizing program Montana has ever seen, and we’re ready to hit the ground running," said Nick Marroletti, a senior Montana Democratic Party official in a March statement.

Tester’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Republicans do not appear concerned. Biden’s low approval ratings, as well as the state’s deep-red politics, have many thinking Tester’s presence in the state’s politics is an anomaly.

"Montanans from across our state, and especially our Tribal neighbors, are reeling from the crime, drugs, and violence flooding into the country from the cartels through the open southern border," Tim Sheehy, the Republican nominee for Senate, told the Free Beacon in a statement. "Thanks to Jon Tester and his votes that enable Joe Biden’s open borders agenda, we are a northern border state with a southern border problem, and the tragic results are hitting Tribal communities especially hard."

Republicans in the state have begun to fill gaps where they believe the federal government has failed. Gov. Greg Gianforte (R., Mont.) signed a law last spring that increased penalties for drug trafficking and deployed the state’s national guard to Texas.

"In the face of Biden’s failures, Montana is cracking down on those pushing this poison on our people," he told the Free Beacon.