FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, MONTANA – Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer will not be found on any ballot next week. But his presence is felt across Indian country.
Schweitzer’s eight years in office will end after this election. He has reached the term limit for that office. Yet it’s hard to argue that any governor, anywhere in the country, has bee more responsive to tribes than Schweitzer.
“Never in Montana’s history has an entire Administration reached out to Indians to ensure they were acknowledged, respected, and most importantly, included,” Schweitzer wrote recently in a report to tribes, “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” “Indians have played a major role in my Administration from day one. They lead departments, provide sound policy advice, run programs, and work tirelessly on my behalf to stay connected to tribal leaders, members, and communities throughout Montana.”
The governor appointed more than 250 “First Montanans” to boards, councils, commissions and offices. The list is comprehensive and impressive by any measure, such as Rhonda Whiting, appointed (and now chair) of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council or Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Service. Sorrell is the only Indian in the country to run a major state agency. He also named Henry “Hank” Real Bird as the state’s Poet Laureate.
Indeed, some of Schweitzer’s appoints are nationwide firsts, such as naming tribal members to Fish & Wildlife commissions, the state athletic commission, board of chiropractors, board of engineers and land surveyors or the state’s Building Codes Council.
He redecorated his state office suite, adding tribal flags from across the state on his first day in office.
“The significance of this promise cannot be understated. It is believed that it is the first time in over 120 years since Montana became a state that the flags of the tribal nations have all flown together on the grounds of the State Capitol,” the state report said.
The governor also met with every tribal government in their tribal capitals beginning in his first year in office.
The Department of Public Health and Human Service – run by Sorrell – is the state’s largest agency with some 2,500 employees. Each tribe has an agreement with that agency that expands Medicaid funding and services for the Indian health system. And the governor’s budget includes a tribal Medicaid liaison to increase funding and billing opportunities (and by extension, the Indian health system funding).
Perhaps the real legacy of Schweitzer’s eight years is a change in thinking about the state’s Native people. State law requires every Montana student to learn about and understand Indian history and culture. This process started in 1972 when the state constitution was amended to “recognize the distinct cultural heritage of American Indians” in all curriculum. But it was under Schweitzer that the law was funded. “In 2005, he made it a priority and since that time has included in his budget, Indian Education for All. Montana has led the way,” the report said.
Lesa Evers, the governor’s director of Indian affairs, and a cabinet member, met with the Fort Belknap Council Wednesday, saying that changes are coming soon and a new governor might take a new direction.
That idea is unsettling. The past eight years have been that good for Montana’s Native Americans. But at the same time the bar has been set higher because of Schweitzer and who ever wins and serves as Montana’s governor will be measured against his record.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.