HELENA, Mont. - Newly elected state leaders here are vowing to strengthen the relationship between state government and Montana's Indian tribes.
"Hopefully, you'll come to trust me," Republican Gov.-elect Judy Martz told several dozen participants at a Dec. 8 summit meeting organized by tribal education and political leaders.
"I believe we can have a great trust and working relationship."
Martz, current lieutenant governor, beat Democrat Mark O'Keefe, the state's auditor, in the Nov. 7 election. She'll officially take over the governor's seat in January. Current Gov. Marc Racicot, also a Republican, was prohibited from seeking re-election because of state-imposed term limits.
Martz said she realizes many tribal members across the state supported her opponent, who campaigned hard on reservations, but she contends that shouldn't make a difference now.
"We need to create an environment of acceptance," she told the group. "I know some of you are afraid of me as governor. Don't be afraid. I don't want to make anyone nervous. I want to work together. My door is open. You call me, and I'll call you back."
Incoming Montana Senate President Tom Beck, a Republican from Deer Lodge, also vowed to cross party lines to ensure Indian people have a strong voice in the 2001 Legislature, which begins Jan. 3.
Strengthening Beck's promise is the fact that a record six tribal members were elected to the state House and Senate this year.
Beck said Montana lawmakers understand the many problems Native Americans are grappling with, and he urged Indian leaders to present potential solutions to the Legislature so the state can provide the best possible assistance.
"I think we know the statistics," Beck said of Indian drop-out rates and the disparate number of tribal members who are incarcerated in the state's prison system. Beck said he'll work to improve Indian education opportunities, even though "the state's budget looks tight already."
The Montana Leadership Summit, which attracted a wide range of players from the state, federal and public sectors, was jointly sponsored by the Montana-Wyoming Indian Education Association and the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council as a way of communicating Indian positions on upcoming legislation and pending policy changes. It also served as an ice-breaker for incoming officials.
"You will keep us honest," Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect Linda McCulloch told the gathering. "There is room at this table for everyone. I need your help."
McCulloch, a Democrat and former three-term legislator, pledged she'll work to trim down high school drop-out rates, improve achievement test scores among the state's Indian population, do what she can to increase the number of Native Americans who become teachers, and throw her support behind the state Constitution's promise to preserve Indian "cultural integrity" in the education system.
"How that language gets played out in the schools is important," observed Joyce Silverthorne, director of the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Education Department.
McCulloch added she believes tribal economic development and education go hand-in-hand.
"Students need to know there is gainful employment out there," she explained, and employers need to be assured that students are getting a well-rounded education.
Retiring state school superintendent Nancy Keenan, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully this fall for Montana's lone U.S. House seat, was honored at the meeting for her years of contributions.
Keenan noted that when she was first elected to head the Office of Public Instruction, "we literally couldn't get more than a handful of people together to talk about Indian education.
"It was like there was no hope there," she observed, adding that tribal members in Montana have now stepped up to the podium, demanding equitable treatment in all aspects of their lives.
"The voices are now singing together," Keenan said. "You have taught me a great deal. You have been my wise teachers. You will be in my heart forever."
Kevin Howlett, a longtime education leader and current member of the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, said many Indian leaders would like to spend more time focusing on improving schools and curriculums, but there are too many competing priorities. Because tribes spend much of their time fighting for sovereignty and the right to merely exist, other important issues get pushed to the wayside.
"There's only so much energy to deal with so much pain," Howlett said, adding that he's optimistic about the promises of state leaders to work more closely with tribes.
"There is a lot of hope out there, and there are a lot of successes," added Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member Leo Kennerly, a former teacher. Still, he said, the remaining challenges in the political and education arenas are enormous.