By Louis Montclair
Over the years, there have been stupid mistakes.
While it’s impossible to go back and change this, we can look back at vintage stupidity and hopefully apply these lessons to their daily lives.
The lesson here comes from over 30 years ago in the late 70’s to early 80’s.
The Tribal Executive Board was based at the current Greet the Dawn Building.
At the same time, Fort Peck Community College was still new and establishing itself in the community.
Robert MacAnally, one of the founders of Fort Peck Community College, said at the time the college was expanding and they were looking at opportunities to help reach students. Mainly, reaching students who are unable to travel daily to Poplar.
One of the college’s supporters, Jacob Crowbelt, helped the college in the early days. He worked with the Education Department in searching for grants and other “unique education experiences.”
MacAnally said he was approached by the Burlington Northern Railroad Corporation.
The idea was simple: the train company had excess box cars that are no longer being used and the company was willing to give them to the college.
This includes the locomotive engine. Essentially a fully functioning train.
With a fully functioning train, FPCC was given a unique opportunity. All of the box cars could be renovated and made into fully functioning classrooms. It would include a library, a science car, and classroom space.
When it was complete, FPCC would be able to bring the “Train of Education” to all communities.
This idea, which resonated with the college leadership, fit perfectly into the college’s mission statement.
This was something that could easily be done with minimal costs.
Federal regulations for trains states a boxcar can only be used for 50 years. After that they must be discarded and replaced with brand new ones.
Every year, large numbers of boxcars are discarded and disposed of to keep up with regulations.
Law doesn’t prohibit companies from donating the retired cars to organizations and institutions that could put them to good use.
Donated cars have been purchased by private individuals and converted into homes and businesses. A community even used one for their public school.
The railroad tracks run along the Missouri River and it’s possible to go from Glasgow to Willison, N.D., and back in a round trip.
With all of the communities along the Hi-Line next to the railroad, bringing education to the people would be no problem. Students wouldn’t have to worry about missing important classes because of no ride.
But beyond this was the potential to give the Tribes a cutting edge in public transportation.
A fully functioning train just given to a tribal government doesn’t happen every day. So with FPCC using them at first, the idea could have been taken further than just education.
Currently, people in rural communities and others without vehicles rely on the Tribes Public Transit bus system.
The program is supposed to provide rides through the Dial-A-Ride system, where someone can call for a ride. Most of the time, people can’t get a ride from the program because they are usually taking others to Wolf Point or Culbertson to the Food Banks. The buses themselves are not handicapped accessible, and unlike other public transportation systems these drivers stop early and will not work beyond 4:30 p.m.
Whatever the reason, the Train of Education could easily be converted into a passenger rail system.
Infrastructure is there. Railroad tracks have been laid for over 100 years, and the Amtrak makes stops on the reservation in Wolf Point, as well as border communities Glasgow and Culbertson.
Railstops can easily be completed. In the past, the railroad system has side tracks built off the main tracks, such as with the so-called ‘Bison Rail’ south of Poplar. Stops have been built in the past by the tracks and they can be reopened for use.
With the railway being used for educational purposes, it would only be a matter of time before the Tribes could take over the operation of it and convert it into public transit system.
With the railway infrastructure already there, the Tribes could reopen the stops along the railway and provided transit in a quick and unique way.
For a small cost, the Tribes could take riders from Glasgow to Williston, N.D., and vice versa.
Groceries and supplies would not be a problem to transport.
A public railway system could take hassle from congested highways during peak shopping times such Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. Because of the long distance to the Valley and Roosevelt County courthouse from other communities, a public railway system would be of great use.
Other cities have benefited from this, and there is no reason the Fort Peck Reservation could not do the same.
Imagine, a public train system being fully operational and able to meet the need for this.
But, this never came about.
There is no other way to describe the decision making of the Tribal Council in power at the time. The dictionary definition of stupid is a “lack of common sense.”
With an idea like this, everyone could come out better and it would benefit the entire region.
But when MacAnally was done explaining the Train of Education to the Tribal Council, one statement had the power to kill the idea and convince the rest of the tribal leaders it was a bad idea for the Tribes.
While he didn’t remember who said it, one of the council members at the time read through the proposal and said “I took the Amtrak from Chicago once and there was a black guy on there who was mean to me.”
With that, no discussion. Nobody elected even bothered to point out Amtrak is different from what is being proposed. Nobody would speak up for this anymore, and just like that an idea that could have advanced the Tribes in business and transportation was destroyed by ignorance.
The lesson is obvious. Competent leaders need to be put into positions of authority, and people need to take the time to listen and apply critical thinking to ideas.
There are so many lessons that can be learned from this, but the main one is obvious: DON’T LET STUPIDITY STOP TRIBAL PROGRESS. The best way to stop this is to get out and vote for competent candidates that know what they are talking about.