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A request to modify the ban on tobacco use in Helena’s parks to accommodate Native American ceremonies failed Wednesday to win support from the City-County Parks Advisory Board.

Had the parks board agreed to recommend a change, it would have been forwarded to the Helena City Commission for a decision.

Daniel Pocha, a former director of the Helena Indian Alliance who is part of the Little Shell tribe of Chippewa Indians, first raised the concern in August that Native American rights were adversely affected by the tobacco ban.

He asked the parks board to recommend modifying the city resolution to allow ceremonial use of tobacco and to acknowledge the change on signage at city parks. 

The city in February 2015 acted on a recommendation from the parks board to expand the prohibition on tobacco use in Centennial Park to all of the city’s developed parks except Bill Robert Golf Course.

The prohibition carries no penalty for those who choose to ignore it. Advocates for the ban have said that if people see others using tobacco in parks, they can point out signs noting the ban. 

City parks and recreation staff had suggested language for the ban on tobacco use in parks that would have said the prohibition did not supersede state or federal laws.

However, parks board member Ross Johnson said that was the case with any of the city’s regulations.

The parks board made no recommendation to city staff after its meeting Wednesday, which led Amy Teegarden, the parks and recreation department director, to say she believed the discussion on the request was concluded.

“That’s how I interpret this,” she said, adding that the parks board had two months to consider the request.

After the meeting, Pocha said “I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t have the ability to admit that that wording should have been in the resolution from the get-go.”

“They don’t want to admit it’s an oversight on their behalf,” he said. 

The Montana Indoor Clean Air Act includes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Pocha said previously, and that the state constitution also speaks to the education of native rights and the preservation of their cultural heritage.

A Native American using ceremonial tobacco -- not all ceremonies require tobacco to be smoked, Pocha said previously -- shouldn’t have to prove that the right exists for that use of tobacco, he said after the parks board meeting.

“I believe that when they put that sign up and that ordinance that says ‘tobacco free’ that they are teaching our native children that the beliefs and traditions of their elders really doesn’t have a place in the white community,” Pocha said.

Having a sign that says “respect traditional tobacco” along with those that ban tobacco use would also offer an opportunity to non-native people to talk about the Native American culture that existed long before the arrival of European settlers, Pocha said.

“The parks should be more inclusive and not exclusive. They should find a way to be more tolerant of everybody. When they asked me if I wanted to pay for a bond to pay for Centennial Park, they didn’t say they were going to come back and restrict the use of it,” he said.

Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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