Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Democrat Denise Juneau announced this week she will run for Montana’s sole congressional representative spot.

Denise Juneau: First American Indian Congresswoman?

Adrian Jawort

In 2008, when she was elected as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Democrat Denise Juneau became the first American Indian woman ever elected to a statewide office in Montana. She was a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, and would like to add first American Indian Congresswoman to her resume.

Juneau recently kicked off her campaign against the incumbent Ryan Zinke in a bid to claim Montana’s sole congressional representative spot. Juneau, who is an enrolled Mandan Hidatsa tribal member, grew up on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation and is also of Blackfeet descent. She was re-elected as the head of Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI) in 2012, and in Indian country has been noted for her commitment to combating the lack of awareness about Native peoples in the education system by helping to implement Montana’s Indian Education for All act (IEFA).

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Juneau took time this week to speak with ICTMN about her announcement to run for the Congressional seat.

What made you finally decide to run for Montana’s only congressional spot?

I had weighed a lot of options of what to do with my future, and came to the conclusion that I’m not done with public service and that I want to continue serving the people of Montana. We’ve had great outcomes in the public education system, and I’m proud Montanans elected me to be in charge of their public education system, also to be a part of the most precious resource we have: our children. I feel like I can take my record and list of accomplishments to a bigger stage and national level.

Do you hope to see the success of Montana’s Indian Education For All (IEFA) reproduced on a national level?

We recently had several other Indian education specialists from other state education agencies here learning from the Montana OPI about what efforts are being implemented here. State legislation regarding Indian education is growing, I see other states picking up similar laws to IEFA, and there are national efforts like from the Smithsonian and the National Museum of the American Indian has been involved with similar types of efforts we’ve had. It’s definitely something that’s starting to take off across the country as I talk with other state education leaders, and I definitely think that’s a good thing.

What are some issues that you hope to bring to the forefront?

There’s a lot of special interest money that pours in in huge amounts that really just buys elections. It keeps a lot of good people out of office who just don’t have a lot of money in the bank who can’t compete with the wealthy and their donors. I’m sort of in that situation right now too starting out as I’ve always been a public servant without a huge bank account, and there’s going to be a lot of money coming in from elsewhere that will try and distort my record with inaccuracies. So our challenge now is to raise enough money to get the true word out to Montanans because at the end of the day it’s Montanans who will vote and decide who their representative is.

Also in Montana, living under the broken No Child Left Behind law is disruptive. Every now and then there’s great hope that it will be reauthorized and re-written, but it really hasn’t been. With my education background and experience that’s something I could help fix so that it works for rural states like Montana. Those are just two issues I’d like to tackle right away but of course there’s so much more.

What’s it mean to you personally as an American Indian woman to run for this office?

There hasn’t been an American Indian woman in congress ever, and I think there’s a very real opportunity to fill that gap—that there’s this idea that there’s still that ‘first’ to be had. Also, when Indians are at the table there’s a huge difference in the conversation and I look forward to getting elected and making sure that voice is there.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Besides I guess as far as being an American Indian congresswoman, I’m running firstly to represent all Montanans, but I do have a unique perspective from growing up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and being enrolled with the Mandan Hidatsa tribe. I’ve worked not only in the education field, but I went to law school and actually worked in a federal Indian law firm. So I understand both the history and reasons for tribal sovereignty, and I think I’d be able to push on that issue for the tribes as an attorney and person who understands the trust responsibilities the federal government needs to fulfill to the tribes.

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