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Candidates pledge to support Indian issues

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ROCKY BOY, Mont. - Jonathan Windy Boy, an elected member of the Chippewa-Cree Business Committee, has been named as the new chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.

Windy Boy was selected during an Aug. 4 council meeting on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. He succeeds former Chairman Dennis Big Hair, a Crow tribal councilman who was defeated in recent local elections.

Following his defeat, Big Hair appointed former Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Bill Old Chief to take over leadership duties of the regional organization. Old Chief, however, also was voted out of office on his home reservation recently and thereby forced to relinquish the seat.

Old Chief also served as a regional representative to the National Congress of American Indians, a position that remains open.

Windy Boy will serve as chairman until January, when the current term expires.

During the meeting, tribal leaders were visited by a number of candidates seeking endorsement for a variety of statewide offices. Democratic gubernatorial nominee and current state Auditor Mark O'Keefe told the group he will improve relations with the state's tribes by making them "full partners" in any decisions that would impact their interests. He also vowed to create a new Native American adviser position at the cabinet level to provide more clout.

O'Keefe, with endorsements from most of the 13 tribes in Montana, added he would plan to personally attend every future leaders council meeting if elected.

"We need to join hands and move ahead as a team or we'll all lose," said O'Keefe, who faces current Lt. Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, in the general election.

Montana's superintendent of public instruction, Nancy Keenan, a Democrat seeking the state's lone seat in the U.S. House, urged participants to consider her long record of support for Indian causes when they go to the polls in November.

Keenan noted that Alan Mikkelsen, campaign manager for her opponent, former Republican Lt. Gov. Dennis Rehberg, is a longtime opponent of tribal sovereignty through his work as head of the Flathead Joint Board of Control, an irrigation group at war with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for decades.

"Take a close look at the record, not the rhetoric."

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Also visiting were Montana Supreme Court candidate Pat Cotter, a Great Falls attorney who said she joins tribal leaders in believing the current court has served Indian people well, and longtime Lewis and Clark County Attorney Mike McGrath, a Democrat running for state attorney general.

McGrath said one of his goals is to "change the culture" in the Montana Department of Justice, and make the agency more friendly to tribes. He also promised tribal governments would see an end to the state fighting their sovereignty efforts through amicus briefs if elected.

Cotter faces Justice Department Chief Counsel Chris Tweeten in the nonpartisan court race. McGrath will vie against Republican Jim Rice.

Longtime Democratic legislator Hal Harper, running for secretary of state, said he also supports tribal interests, and will work to dismantle obstacles to tribes having more of a say in Montana's electoral process. He would further streamline voter registration procedures and broaden criteria for creating jury pools.

Harper faces Republican Bob Brown in November.

Sarah Dudley, a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., conveyed a statement decrying a recent Washington state GOP resolution attacking tribal sovereignty. She said Baucus, solid on many American Indian issues during his long tenure in Congress, will continue to promote their interests wherever he can.

State Democratic officials also unveiled their new American Indian platform which outlines party support for tribal sovereignty, improved educational opportunities and better state-tribal relations, as well as the need to heighten public awareness about Indian history, culture and self-governance. The planks address a need to increase the number of tribal members working in state government, and to improve social services delivery on and off reservations.

The Democrats pledged to tackle a number of criminal justice issues including inequalities in the state prison system, where an exceedingly high percentage of inmates are Indian.

While some tribal leaders expressed skepticism, Stan Ullman, an aide to U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., tried to convince the group that Burns, long known for making racist and degrading remarks about people of color, is on their side, despite acknowledged shortcomings.

Ullman reminded the group Burns has been helpful with a number of Indian housing and water issues in Montana, and has been supportive of reservation economic development and health care improvements.

The tribal delegates brought up the anti-sovereignty measure Burns floated a couple of years ago. The draft legislation, which would have sharply limited tribal jurisdiction within Montana reservations, was quietly pulled after a firestorm of opposition erupted from tribal leaders who had not been notified the bill was coming.

Ullman said the experience caused the senator, who is still sponsoring legislation against the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, to have a "new-found respect for sovereignty." Burns is running for his third, six-year term against Democrat Brian Schweitzer.