Meet Denise Juneau, who hopes to be the first Native American woman in Congress

Indian Country votes will help determine whether this seat flips to blue.

 

“I like to tell people I’m the product of a federal policy,” Denise Juneau, the head of Montana’s public school system, once told a packed auditorium of Harvard students, alumni and faculty. Her mother, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes, began dating her Blackfeet father in Oakland, California, after they had both relocated there as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs program designed to alleviate poverty and isolation on reservations by bringing Native Americans into cities. Juneau’s words reflected a harsh historical truth as well as a bit of dark humor; the Harvard audience chuckled, somewhat uneasily, in response. At 5-foot-10, Juneau has a round face, chin-length brown hair and a calm demeanor. Her comment revealed the classic combination of blunt candor and disarming ease that has helped earn her near-celebrity status in Montana Indian Country. 

As superintendent of public instruction for the past nine years, Juneau, 49, became known for promoting educational policies that benefit all Montana students, not just Native Americans. She was the first Native American woman in the country elected to a statewide executive position, and this November, she hopes to break down more barriers. Juneau, a Democrat, is campaigning to become Montana’s sole U.S. House representative and the first-ever Native American woman in the United States Congress. She is also the state’s first openly gay candidate for federal office. 

The Juneau campaign has its work cut out for it. Montana has historically been a red state, though its gubernatorial and U.S. Senate seats frequently go blue. A Democrat hasn’t been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1994, though, nor a Democratic presidential candidate favored since 1992. Montanans haven’t elected a woman to the U.S. Congress since 1940. To win, Juneau needs most of the Native vote, and American Indians have some of the lowest voter turnout among U.S. ethnic groups. But Juneau feels empowered by the people who came before her. Making change through education and political empowerment isn’t just something she’s read about — it’s a long family tradition. “I’ve always just sort of plowed forward,” she says, “having the strength of family and knowing there are these values that we’re really steeped in.”

 

Denise Juneau speaks at a community meal at the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, during her tour of the state’s seven reservations. About 150 to 200 community members came to the event.
Courtesy Denise Juneau for Congress

Juneau’s tribal membership comes from her mother, Carol, who grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. In 1946, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, which submerged her community and destroyed local fishing and agriculture. “They picked us up and moved us,” she remembers. “My dad fought against it really strongly.” As college students, Carol, now 71, and her husband, Stan, now 72, joined the Billings American Indian Council and participated in social justice actions. When they had children, they brought them along to protests.

When she was just a toddler, Juneau made her first political stand, accompanying her brother and their parents to a protest against the lack of law enforcement response to the recent murders of five Native Americans in Billings. Juneau doesn’t recall that event in particular, but her youthful activism had a lasting impact: “My parents really instilled these values of standing up for yourself.”

The family later moved to Browning on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation. Juneau was fairly shy, though she played offense on the high school basketball team, became captain and won several athletic awards her junior and senior years. (She still uses the “full court press” metaphor in speeches.)

Juneau’s parents were educators in local public schools. They entered the field less because they were passionate about teaching than because of its employment opportunities. But ultimately, teaching became more than a job: “We believed that if people find success in education, they would find success in other parts of their life,” Carol says. “Maybe young kids could continue on to college, help with the economic development and social changes on reservations.” When Juneau was a teenager, her mother became active in a national movement to create tribal colleges on reservations. Back then, only a couple existed in the West; now there are dozens. Carol established the Blackfeet Community College, one of Montana’s first.

During high school, Juneau took additional classes there. She later attended Montana State University in Bozeman, where she earned a bachelor’s in English and served as vice president of the Indian Club, which organized the annual student powwow. One college classmate remembers her as “always in the Indian Club room,” where American Indian students connected with other tribal members, telephoned home to reservations, or just did homework in a safe space. At MSU, Juneau saw a poster for a Rockefeller student fellowship. She applied, got it, and used it to attend Harvard University, where she earned her master’s degree in education. Going to Harvard, Juneau says, “was a long journey in many ways, not just geography.”

Later, Juneau became interested in education policy and its intersection with politics. “My mom had been in the Legislature,” she says, serving as a Democratic state representative from 1998 to 2008 and later, as a state senator. “I’d watched her do a lot of standing up for people who didn’t have a voice. I thought that was super powerful.” Inspired, Juneau went to law school, and then clerked for Montana Supreme Court judges for several years. In 2006, she became director of Indian education at the state Office of Public Instruction.

 

“The things that you learn in school, like ‘Westward expansion,’ ” Juneau once said, “well, we think of it sort of as an Eastern invasion. It’s all about perspective.” As head of Indian education, Juneau worked to get more diverse perspectives into classrooms across Montana. The program, called Indian Education for All, was made possible by work her mother had done as a legislator years before. In 1999, Carol Juneau sponsored a bill and later testified in a lawsuit to implement and fund an unfulfilled promise in the state Constitution to be “committed in its educational goals to the preservation of (American Indian) cultural integrity.”

Starting in 2006, Denise Juneau used that funding to train educators, identify inaccurate or biased textbooks and encourage Montana tribes to create their own personal histories to be taught in all state schools, on and off reservations. Juneau once described the program as “a quiet revolution happening in classrooms across Montana.” Some critics, however, called it reverse discrimination, asking why there wasn’t also funding to improve Norwegian history lessons, or why she hadn’t created “French education for all.” Despite the criticism, educators in other states now look to Montana as a model for reform. It was the only state to integrate an Indian Education for All program into the Common Core curriculum that swept the nation a few years ago.

In 2008, Juneau successfully ran for superintendent of Montana public education, beginning her political career in earnest. She was re-elected in 2012. While superintendent, Juneau disseminated an $11.4 million federal grant for low-performing schools. She took an unconventional approach, however, first looking at how similar grants in the past had improved schools. Mostly, they hadn’t. “The school systems were a little chaotic,” says Mandy Smoker-Broaddus, now head of Indian education in Montana. “(Juneau) partnered with them more directly and walked alongside them.” She requested that the state hand out the money instead of the federal government, so that she and her staff could work directly with the lowest-performing schools — all of which were on reservations.

“Schools felt isolated,” says Smoker-Broaddus. “They were looking at Denise and the rest of our team, saying, ‘We need help and we don’t know where to go next.’ ” Distrust of state and federally sponsored education still lingers in many reservation communities, following a long history of institutionalized discrimination. But now, instead of a white superintendent, no matter how well-intentioned, “it was an American Indian for the first time, saying, ‘We want to help you and do something different,’ ” she says. “They were able to have a level of trust. Because (Juneau) looked like them and came from a community like theirs, it made the difference.”  

Although the sitting U.S. Congress is the most diverse yet, only 8 percent of Native Americans are represented in the House by a member of their ethnic group.

 

While over a dozen Native American men have served in Congress since 1907, no Native American woman has. Only 20 percent of congressional lawmakers are currently women. And although the sitting U.S. Congress is the most diverse yet, only 8 percent of Native Americans are represented in the House by a member of their ethnic group. The reasons for this are as complex and far-reaching as U.S. history itself.

Like many states, Montana effectively denied American Indians the right to vote for decades. In 1932, the state Constitution was changed to allow only “qualified, taxpaying” residents to vote. Because Native Americans on reservations did not pay property taxes, they could not register to vote. That statute stayed in place until 1971, and even today, Native American and Alaska Native voter turnout nationwide is 5 to 14 percent lower than other groups.

Having Native Americans in high-level administrative roles or running for office can help prime the electorate for future races, says Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the advocacy group National Congress for American Indians. In Montana, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, appointed more Native Americans to key administrative positions than ever before. It “got other people exposed to the fact that Native Americans are smart and solution-oriented, like anyone else, and trustworthy,” Pata says.

In order for Denise Juneau to win her bid for Congress, more Native Americans in Montana will have to vote than usual, since she’s battling an incumbent for a seat that usually goes Republican, says Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College in Helena. This is the first year that Montana’s seven reservations have all had either a voter registration office or polling place, so tribal members no longer have to drive an hour or more to register. Staffers at the nonprofit Western Native Voice even went door-to-door this summer with the ambitious goal of adding 5,000 new Native American voters this year to the state’s current 15,259. Most of Montana’s Native voters are Democrats, and if at least 65 percent of them go to the polls, says the group’s head, Marci McLean, Juneau might win.

The so-called “Trump factor” could affect votes for incumbent Republican Ryan Zinke, Juneau’s opponent. Zinke spoke at the Republican National Convention in July and has actively supported Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. That support could win Zinke votes from the far right, since the state’s Republicans mostly voted for Trump in the primary. There’s also a chance Zinke could lose votes from more moderate GOP voters unhappy with Trump’s unconventional campaign and polarizing rhetoric. If the latter happens, Juneau could eke out a win, or at least make it a close race.

“Discrediting the opponent is important for Denise Juneau,” Johnson says. “She needs to do that in order to beat Zinke,” since Montana leans red. And Juneau’s campaign seems to be spending a significant amount of time trying to do just that. “Congressman Zinke’s unyielding support of Trump — no matter what comes out of his mouth — is shameful,” Juneau said in August. To counter, Zinke’s team criticizes Juneau for not distancing herself from “the architect of Benghazi, Hillary Clinton.” Juneau opposes transferring federal lands to state control and supports permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. As a member of the state land board, Juneau has voted both for and against various Montana coal projects.

Zinke and Juneau have debated several times since August. This year, for the first time ever, two debates are tentatively planned to be on Indian reservations, one on the Crow Nation, where past Republican candidates have made inroads, in part because it’s coal country. Johnson says the reservation debates are due to the increased attention the Native vote is receiving this cycle. That should help Juneau. But whatever happens, her mother, Carol, says it’s satisfying to watch her daughter continue where she left off:  “Denise is the next step, the federal level.”

Most analysts consider Juneau’s bid a fairly long shot, depending on whether progressives and Native Americans make it to the polls in large numbers this November. In some ways, Juneau’s future is a test of what she and her family have been working toward for decades: “It’s big in our family, making sure that Indian people vote,” Juneau says. “We believe that our vote is our voice.”

Associate Editor Tay Wiles writes from Oakland, California. 

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