One of the most well received speakers at this year’s gathering of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) in Washington, D.C. during the organization’s annual Impact Week in early February wasn’t even Indian. It was the affable Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who left office due to term limits in January, but who seems to be keeping Indians and their issues close to his heart—probably a very good place to be if he seeks higher office, which he is said to be considering.
Schweitzer recalled during a speech to the assembled tribal leaders and citizens that at his inauguration in 2005, he invited several tribal citizens to play drums at the ceremony, but he was told by some state officials at the Montana state capitol that he couldn’t have the drums there because perhaps their sounds would break the historic windows of the building.
“I said, if they did break, maybe some of the evil spirits would escape that building—yes, we made some changes,” Schweitzer said to laughter and applause, noting that the drums did play on that day.
Given the long-standing tension between many states and tribes, that a top state official would become one of the most popular speakers in a crowd full of interesting Indians was no small feat. But it was also not a total surprise, given Schweitzer’s strong relationship and background with the federally recognized tribes of his home state. Part of that involved him bringing more Indians into the state government than all of the other previous 22 governors of the state combined, investing in Native education, supporting the protection of buffaloes, and promoting tribal economic development.
Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, introduced Schweitzer at USET, recalling a 2005 story about an Indian student from Montana who was being denied his high school diploma because he wanted to dress in traditional regalia at his graduation ceremony. His non-Indian teachers did not understand, but the governor sure did—choosing to speak up in the state and national press for the young man, and insisting that he be able to graduate in his bolo tie, which eventually happened.
“All of us in this room know what it feels like to be told to hide our cultural heritage, so we can imagine what it must have felt like for that young man to hear the governor of Montana telling him to stand strong and not apologize to anyone for wanting to honor your Indian roots,” Halbritter said.
The bolo tie story is one that typifies Schweitzer’s relationships with Indians during his eight years in office: “As governor, he ensured that Indians were acknowledged, respected, and included in all state operations,” Halbritter said. “It is also worth noting that he left office as the most popular governor in the history of his state.”
“Hey, that’s good B.S.,” Schweitzer said with a big grin after Halbritter’s introduction, then noting the Battle of Little Big Horn and the “arrogant white men who were surprised and overwhelmed” by Indian power at the historic battle. “If you go there today and listen to the winds blow, you can hear the whimpering of Karl Rove,” Schweitzer said to more laughter.
Despite the accomplishments of ex-governor in promoting solid tribal-state relations, there is still much to be done to improve the overall situation, Schweitzer said in an interview after his speech.
“We have a lot to learn from Indian people all over this great nation,” Schweitzer said. “In Montana, we accentuate the first Montanans—we revere them and learn lessons from them. We need people in leadership who have a notion about history and who we all are as a people.”
Tribal leaders are working to improve the situation, Halbritter said in an interview, noting that in his own home state of New York, the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, has had a contentious relationship with tribes over several economic development issues.
“Actions speak louder than words, and Gov. Schweitzer has shown that cooperation makes a lot of sense,” Halbritter said. “If the governor of New York could follow that model, his relationships would be stronger with tribes. The politics of omission are just not as successful as the politics of inclusion and cooperation.”
Halbritter said his tribe can’t even get a meeting with the current governor, and that Cuomo has neglected to include tribes on economic development councils.
Likewise, USET leaders faced their own discouragement on the building-the-tribal-state-relations front at the very gathering Schweitzer spoke at when the National Governors Association (NGA) failed to send a representative to speak at the event upon invitation. Some in attendance questioned whether that means the group doesn’t think tribes are important enough to communicate with. On that issue, Schweitzer said that governors who have large tribal constituencies need to be asked to play a role in the organization in bringing tribal concerns to the forefront of NGA.
Halbritter, for one, hopes that state leaders who have not been open to tribes will learn from Schweitzer’s example, saying that the Montana politico “has created a blueprint for every governor and political leader to learn from and emulate” and “has demonstrated through his leadership that building a relationship with Indian country based on respect and partnership, rather than conflict and demonization, is the best way governors can not only address the many challenges their states are facing, but also send a message that inclusion is a value respected by their state.”
Halbritter also said that some in Indian country would like to see Schweitzer run for high office—a prospect that could be attractive to the popular and still young ex-governor. Whether that happens or not, Schweitzer had this to say about his future: “Indian people are a part of who I am, and they will be part of who my children and grandchildren are. That’s just the way it is.”