Head of the class

State superintendent Denise Juneau's improbable rise is impossible to ignore



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Juneau illustrates a bit of her sense of humor while mimicking the rhetoric used by groups against her before the election. Using a faux radio announcer's deep voice, she asks, "She votes against school funding and what does she get? An award!"

Overall, Juneau shrugs off the accusations. She stands by her decision and maintains there have to be better ways to fund public education.

"What I learned from this election cycle is, you can still vote your conscience. You can still govern from your center," she says. "I know that I can govern from my values. That's what I bring to this office."


Just back from a weekend trip to address the Idaho Democratic Party, Juneau starts her week at the Red Lion Colonial Hotel in Helena, as a circle of young American Indian men beat on drums beneath gold chandeliers. Teachers who are gathered here from across the state tap the tables to the drumbeat while snacking on muffins.

The teachers and drummers are gathered for the Indian Education for All Best Practices Conference, a daylong workshop that features discussions and lessons for teachers about how to educate students on Native culture and history. When Juneau steps up to the blanket-covered podium, she notes that Montana's Indian Education for All directive is finally taking root in public schools.

"Collectively, we are making a difference," Juneau says.

On this morning, the teachers learn about the Treaty of Hellgate, in which the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille tribes ceded some 23 million acres of land in exchange for the 1.3-million acre Flathead Reservation. Such lessons are incorporated into not just history classes, but also math, science and public speaking.

Montana is the only state to incorporate Indian education into its public school core curriculum. The mandate comes from a state constitutional provision added in 1972 that requires the recognition of "the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians," and a commitment "in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity."

The provision was—and remains—unusual compared to other states. However, it took decades to implement.

"We passed the Constitution, but found not very many teachers picked up and did anything with it," says Dorothy Eck, one of the delegates to serve during the Constitutional Convention in 1972. "That's why the Indian Education for All bill came up."

In an effort to fulfill the mandate, Sen. Carol Juneau in 1999 sponsored the Indian Education for All Act. The bill, which passed the legislature that year, called to "give effect to the constitutional principles" included in the 1972 directive. Even then, however, legislators resisted funding the mandate.

"We fought each session trying to get a little bit," Carol Juneau recalls. "We, one time, asked for $60,000, I think, and couldn't get it. We cut that request down to $25,000. We couldn't get it."

Juneau with her executive assistant, Billie LaDeau. “I know that I can govern from my values. That’s what I bring to this office,” Juneau says. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Juneau with her executive assistant, Billie LaDeau. “I know that I can govern from my values. That’s what I bring to this office,” Juneau says.

It took a 2005 Supreme Court decision to compel the legislature to fund Indian education. Lawmakers that year allocated $20.40 per student to fund the constitutional mandate.

In 2006, the Indian Education for All program finally launched under the supervision of Denise Juneau, who before running for superintendent served as the agency's Indian Education for All director between 2006 and 2008.

Eck, now 89, attributes the program's current successes to the advocacy of both Carol and Denise Juneau. She points to their ceaseless promotion at regional conventions, as well as in the state legislature.

"That's really why it got pushed ahead, because at any number of gatherings they brought forth this concern," she says.

The Juneaus are excited to see the next generation of students learn lessons that their predecessors likely didn't. Young Montanans will know that American Indians in many areas of the country weren't allowed to vote until the 1950s. Similarly, they'll learn why treaty promises made generations ago are still being debated at the Montana Legislature today.

Denise Juneau says the whole idea behind Indian Education for All is to elevate discourse among all Montanans and, in doing so, heal old wounds that breed disagreements. "That is the great hope of all of this," she says.


To many, Juneau represents a great hope in politics. Just as she was waiting for the election results last November, Oprah magazine named her one of 12 elected officials in the nation most likely to "Get things done." A copy of the issue hangs in her Helena office. Then, in January, Governing magazine named Juneau one of the top state Democratic officials to watch.

Her mother acknowledges the type of pressure her daughter faces as the first American Indian woman elected to a statewide office. "She has a lot of responsibility because of that," Carol Juneau says. "To do well—and to represent Indian Country."

The spotlight has its price. Although Juneau is accessible to the public and generous with her time, she's guarded about her personal life. She's not married. She has no pets. She says she has a "circle of trust," a core group of friends that she can confide in and blow off steam with.

Juneau is similarly private about her political aspirations. Her ascent has been so striking that many speculate about what she'll do when she terms out in 2016.

"We'll have to see what the political landscape looks like," she says. "I do know it will likely be public service of some sort. And, whether that's an elected position or something else, we'll have to see."

No matter what she chooses, she'll have the attention of Indian Country, an entire state and, now, the nation.

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