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Noel Lyn Smith
ICT

Improving the lives of Native Americans was the heart of Gary Niles Kimble’s work in politics and managing organizations and agencies that addressed issues facing tribal communities.

Kimble, 80, who died of complications from a motor vehicle accident in July, was a pioneer in Montana politics and helped set the foundation for American Indian federal policy throughout his career.

He had been hospitalized at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington D.C., where he died on July 30, according to his cousin, Bum Stiffarm.

“He never was raised on the reservation. His father was a miner, but worked in the mines in western Montana,” Stiffarm said on Sept. 7.

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He added he remembers Kimble and his parents would visit relatives on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana.

“He knew the plight of American Indians,” Stiffarm said. “Maybe that lit a fire inside in how he can help improve the lives and livelihood of American Indians living on reservations.”

Former President Bill Clinton nominated Kimble, a member of the Gros Ventre (Aaniih) tribe, as Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1994.

The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination that year and Kimble served until 2001.

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“We can’t even express the happiness that we had for him,” Stiffarm said. “We all knew he’d do a fantastic job and he did.”

That work was part of Kimble’s lengthy career in public service.

He represented Missoula in the Montana House of Representatives from 1972 to 1978.

A significant moment in his political career was an unsuccessful run for Montana’s 1st Congressional district, marking the first time a Native American ran for the office, according to family members.

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Kimble’s career includes serving as an advisor on Indian affairs in the Office of the Governor in Montana from 1983 to 1986.

His work influenced other Native Americans to run for state offices, Stiffarm said.

Kimble was executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs from 1989 to 1994. The association is a nonprofit organization that focuses on protecting sovereignty, preserving culture, educating youth and building capacity.

“Under Kimble, the association became deeply involved in issues relating to Native American religious and cultural freedom, including the protection of sacred sites, the preservation of ceremonial practices and the repatriation of Indian remains and artifacts,” Shannon O’Loughlin, the association’s chief executive and attorney, said in a Sept. 2 statement to ICT.

O’Loughlin added, “the association offered assistance to organizations dedicated to the furtherance of these objectives and, together with the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund, founded the American Indian Religious Freedom Coalition to secure the passage of favorable federal legislation in this sphere.”

Kimble was an adjunct professor of federal Indian law and director of the affirmative action program from 1987 to 1988 at the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College.

Kimble also worked as counsel in 1979 for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, served as assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana and represented the state department as a delegate to the United States-Canada treaty negotiations on Pacific fishery.

He graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 1966 and the university’s law school in 1972.

In 1993, the university bestowed him the Distinguished Alumni Award.

He was a U.S. Army veteran and served in Vietnam.

“I thought it was pretty crazy when they told me that he got his journalism degree in June ’66 and the next day he got drafted,” Stiffarm said.

Kimble’s obituary states that he served as a journalist with the 4th Infantry Division in Pleiku in central Vietnam.

A memorial service for Kimble, the sole survivor of his immediate family, was on Sept. 2 at the Fort Belknap Community Center.

His cremated remains were buried next to his parents at the Philipsburg, Montana cemetery.

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