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Businessman, leader and dancer - the many faces of Jonathan Windy Boy

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. - Chippewa-Cree Business Committee member Jonathan Windy Boy, who is serving as a Democratic representative in the 2003 Montana Legislature, is notoriously modest about his skills and accomplishments.

But he is clearly one of the fastest-rising Indian leaders in the region and is making his presence know in broader arenas, as well.

Windy Boy, 44, recently served as chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and is a co-founder of the Council of Large Land-based Tribes, formed in 1999 to give Western tribes a stronger voice in national politics.

He's also been chairman of Stone Child College's Board of Regents and his tribe's Senior Citizens Board. He's served on the Rocky Boy Tribal Health Board, on the Chippewa-Cree Housing Authority, on his tribe's economic development, law enforcement, water resources and social services committees, as well as the Chippewa-Cree Gaming Commission. He's also a champion grass dancer.

Windy Boy says being raised on his family's ranch helped instill a work ethic that led him to the top of Montana tribal politics. Indian Country Today recently caught up with Windy Boy to gather his thoughts on leadership, his successes, and his goals for the future.

ICT: You're a co-founder and served as the first president of the Council of Large, Land-based Tribes. Why is this group needed and what do you feel it has accomplished?

JWB: The needs of the large, land-based tribes are different than those of a lot of other tribes, especially when it comes to the distribution of federal dollars.

The reservation acreage in Montana, for example, is about 11.5 million acres. The Navajo Nation is also about 16 million acres. The total tribal land base in the United States is about 54 million acres, so you're talking about just a few tribes with a lot of the acreage. Because of the huge amounts of land and the large populations that these tribes have, the tribes with a large land base have always been at a disadvantage under the federal funding formulas. It's an issue of fairness and fair distribution. There's a disparity. We started becoming more visible with the trust-reform issue and people began to take notice. The group is still active. It meets quarterly.

ICT: Why did you run for the Montana Legislature? What do you hope to accomplish there?

JWB: Having to go testify before the Legislature for the tribal leaders council during the last session was very frustrating at times. To me, I felt like we were being undermined in some of the things we were working on, like welfare and health issues. I thought we were victorious on some things, and then the following week you'd have something else come up as an obstacle. After learning about the mentality of the bureaucracy, I knew I was on the wrong side of the table. That's when I made up my mind that I would be back.

ICT: What are the main things state governments can do to help Indian people? What's the best way of resolving the continual friction between state and tribal governments?

JWB: The federal government is now favoring the devolution process regarding tribes. That gives states more control, and that means state governments need to be better educated about the needs and issues of tribal nations.

One of my bills deals with government-to-government consultation. Gov. (Judy) Martz signed a proclamation about this with tribes, but there were some details that I wanted in the proclamation that didn't get in, mainly dealing with what happens if people in her administration violate it.

By moving forward with recent cuts in state health programs and other programs that directly impact tribes, the proclamation is being violated because they didn't come to us. The governor submitted her budget, and it wasn't until the eleventh-and-a-half hour that we were notified. To me, that was uncalled for. The federal government recognizes tribes as their own separate governments. I'm hoping that the state will start recognizing us, too. To understand each government and how they operate will go a long way in solving a lot of the problems.

ICT: How do you deal with racism, both personally and professionally? Do you feel relations between Indians and non-Indians in Montana are improving or getting worse?

JWB: I think racism will always peek its head up in our society. It's a real monster. Will it ever go away? I don't know. But whether it stays or whether it goes, tribal nations aren't going anywhere. We're here to stay. We need to get beyond the mentality of racism. We need to confront it whenever it shows up. I think things are improving in Montana. I think an example of that is that I was elected to the Legislature with six other native people. That wouldn't have happened in the 1950s.

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ICT: What are your personal goals at this point? Do you ever see yourself running for governor or Congress?

JWB: I don't know if I can see myself as a governor or a congressman or a senator. I haven't really explored that thought. I can say at this point that if someone asked me 20 years ago whether I would be a tribal leader or a state legislator, I couldn't answer it then. I just want to enjoy and relish the positions I have right now.

ICT: Was there a turning point in your life where you suddenly decided you're more of a leader than a follower? Was there a certain event, or was it something that happened over a period of years?

JWB: I think a main event that occurred before I became a councilman happened in the early to mid-1990s. I decided then I wanted to give back to society. Being alcohol-free for more than 20 years, I wanted to give something back to my community. I give a lot of motivational talks in a lot of schools to try to encourage students to do what they want to do. I used to have a lot of frustration with my council and then somebody said, 'Why don't you run for council?' So that was kind of a turning point. I went from not knowing what I was going to do to deciding to do something to try to help other people.

ICT: You've been quite active in federal trust reform and have testified before Congress on the issue. In your mind, what's the best way to fix the system?

JWB: Regardless of what recommendations the tribes come up with, the administration is going to do whatever it wants. I knew that was going to happen before I testified last year. It's mostly a dog-and-pony show. Interior Secretary (Gale) Norton and Assistant Secretary (Neal) McCaleb basically had their heads on the platter. They had a drop-dead deadline laid down, so they had to put something in place regardless of what tribes wanted.

Whatever outcome happens, not everybody is going to be satisfied. And that lets the government have the old mentality of divide and conquer. Some tribes want a receivership, but every tribe is different and every individual account holder is different. For my part, I don't have a clear theory at this point on what's right or what's not right for trust reform.

ICT: You have devoted much of your career to helping children and the elderly. Why is that? What drives your concerns?

JWB: Elderly people have had a huge, huge impact on my life. I hear them. I hear their teachings. I hear their needs. The things that they know need to be brought down to the lower level, to the youth. But some of our younger generations have gotten lost; they're needing direction. They're kind of hungry for the traditional knowledge, which nowadays is limited. In order for our people to survive, there has to be that connection from one age group going into the next age group. That's important, and I want to do what I can to help be a part of that.

ICT: Increased economic development would certainly have a positive impact on both Indians and non-Indians in Montana. What things should be done to improve the state's economic climate, both on and off the reservations? What can Indian people themselves do to improve their economic situation?

JWB: Economic development has really become a buzz word the past few years, and for my people economic development was always minimal because they basically lived off the land. A lot of these programs are being created by departments that have a left hand and a right hand that doesn't know what the other hand is doing. In order to capitalize on economic development, these programs need to be more focused. It's not going to be an overnight fix. Education is a big part of it. Mixing economic development with the current welfare situation is going to continue to be a big challenge, and we've all got to work on that together.

ICT: You are a noted grass dancer, winning many championships over the years. What does traditional dancing do for you? What does it mean to live the grass dancer way?

JWB: The traditions of my dancing were passed on from other generations. Along with it came teachings of how to live. It's always said a grass dancer does one thing on one side and follows up with it on the other. It's a lesson on how to live life, taking it one step at a time. It's helped me come to where I am today. It helps me keep a balance by starting off on only one foot. It brings in the spiritual, the physical, the whole being. It's been a major factor in my life. I've been dancing since I was two years old. Being a champion basically means I'm living by my own standards.

ICT: What are your biggest frustrations and how do you deal with those?

JWB: My biggest frustration is that no matter what an individual does in their life, there's always what I call the crab-in-the-bucket syndrome. No matter what you do to accomplish things, there's always going to be someone there trying to pull you down. That's the mentality of society. It's not very positive. In order to move forward in a positive manner and try to make a difference, you always have to deal with that. I always try to keep that in mind.

ICT: What kind of advice can you give other Indian leaders who are just starting out?

JWB: Don't give up. Never allow yourself to be pulled down. Educate yourself on everything. Continue moving forward no matter what.