Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Schweitzer to Native Americans: You Matter

[Chippewa Cree] tribal council members also had Gov. Brian Schweitzer's ear Tuesday, as he rounded out his tour of Montana reservations. ...

Houle said the tribe had a good discussion with Gov. Schweitzer and members of his Cabinet and staff. Some of the issues that were discussed were a proposed ethanol plant, a shortage of funding for a low- income energy assistance program, and economic development.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of governmental ethanol subsidies. But Schweitzer's building ethanol plants in order to help low-income workers find better-paying jobs, including Native Americans. That's something I can get behind.

And this isn't the first time Schweitzer's reached out to the Native Americans in his state. He is an official member of the Crow Nation and went to see the Blackfeet, to which tribe belongs Schweitzer's new appointee for Chairperson of the Montana Arts Council. And Schweitzer flew tribal flags over his inaugural ball (he has continued to fly them, in rotation, over the Montana Statehouse).

In an article in the Great Falls Tribune, Schweitzer explained why he sees Native Americans as a major priority of his campaign:

"In just the 90 days I've been in office, the most angry calls I get in the middle of the night are about my close relationship with folks in Indian Country," Schweitzer said. "Some say they wanna shoot my a— because I'm an Indian lover."

But the governor said he'd rather sit down and talk with Montana's Indian tribes before meeting with the "redneck on the other end of the line."

"I'm your friend. You're my friend. And I won't forget it," Schweitzer said before leaving his four-hour meeting with the Fort Peck tribal council.

He added that he'll never know what it's like to be a Native American in Montana — to walk into a store and "be watched a little more closely than everyone else." ...

He also encouraged the tribal government to send him the names of the best and brightest tribal members, to be available when positions in state government or with his administration open up. "This will be my permanent legacy," Schweitzer said.

As a Westerner who lives on the edge of the largest Indian reservation in the country (the Navajo), I can tell you that Indians are the Western equivalent of Blacks -- a bedrock Democratic constituency that is so "safe" it is ignored by most Democratic politicians. This lack of interest in Native American issues on our part has led to some noticeable inroads by Republicans on reservations; for instance, my Congressman, Rick Renzi, won a majority of the votes on the Navajo Reservation in 2004 after winning only 10% in 2002.

So when Schweitzer spends so much time with Native Americans, catering to their needs and representing their interests to the wider community, he's once again trailblazing for Western (and national) Democrats. He's telling the Indian community that it matters to Democrats and that we will do what's necessary to protect and preserve it. Our other elected officials would do well to follow Schweitzer's lead.


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