Head of the class

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



On election night 2012, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau sat glued to her home computer. Every so often she'd hit the refresh button of her browser, checking to see if the secretary of state's office had updated the vote tally, hoping to learn whether she would keep her job.

"I was probably up for 52 hours straight," Juneau recalls. "Just pushing refresh, that's all I did."

Earlier that night, she attended an election night party with the Montana Democrats at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena. As results started coming in, and incumbent Democrats like Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and Auditor Monica Lindeen and gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock all pulled away to victory, cheers erupted in the convention hall. The numbers for Juneau, however, were always too close to call.

"Everybody got to do their celebrations," Juneau says. "I was just sitting there."

That's when Juneau retreated to her home not far from the Capitol and started hitting refresh on her computer. As the hours wore on, Juneau would creep ahead and then lose her lead, only to gain ground again in the race against her Republican challenger, Sandy Welch of Martin City. A few members of her staff stayed by her side. Her mom, former state legislator Carol Juneau, and dad brought her food.


A few months prior, no one would have guessed that Denise Juneau would be caught in such a tight race. It was just September, after all, when she traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to address the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In front of an enthusiastic crowd of 35,000 and a nationwide television audience, Juneau talked about being a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and growing up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. With a small American flag pinned to the lapel of her dark blazer, she talked about her unprecedented political rise and a startling fact in today's culture—she is the first and only Native American woman to ever be elected to a statewide office, anywhere. She said that it had been a long journey composed of painful and hopeful chapters for her to arrive on that stage. "We deserve to be part of the American dream," she said.

Denise's mother, Carol, was in attendance as a Montana delegate, and says she felt a sense of wonder as her daughter addressed the crowd. Carol Juneau, a trailblazer in the indigenous rights movement herself, was acutely aware of the history she was witnessing that night. Eighty-eight years after Congress made American Indians U.S. citizens, 47 years after lawmakers made it possible for all indigenous adults to cast ballots and 5 years after Carol Juneau herself was sworn in as the first American Indian woman to serve in the Montana Senate, her daughter walked firmly into the national political limelight.

"We were all chanting, 'Juneau, Juneau,' as she walked up to the stage," she says.

Fast-forward two months, however, and there were no chants. It was just Denise Juneau and a computer screen showing her nail-biting returns.

On Nov. 14, the secretary of state released unofficial results showing Juneau ahead of Welch by 2,264 votes. Welch challenged that total, saying publicly that Election Day glitches, such as voting machine errors, could have skewed the numbers. Citing "widespread" problems in polling places, Welch asked a Flathead County District Judge to order a recount. On Dec. 7, the judge complied. On Dec. 11, Welch abruptly dropped her request, citing challenges raising the $115,000 required to verify the total.

Thirty-six days after Election Day, the secretary of state officially declared Juneau the winner. She won by 2,231 of the 468,563 votes cast.

The whole ordeal drained Juneau. "I didn't realize how much stress I was living under," she says. But after a short respite, she was back at work. Spend enough time with Juneau and you realize she's not one to back down from a fight—nor rest for long even after she's won.


It's Friday evening at the Governor's Mansion in Helena and Montana leaders, including Montana Democratic Party Chair Jim Elliott, former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams, Planned Parenthood CEO Stacy James and Helena Republican Rep. Liz Bangerter, among others, munch on cream puffs, stuffed mushrooms and fruit salad under gold-colored chandeliers.

Denise Juneau speaks at the Indian Education for All Best Practices Conference. Carol Juneau, Denise’s mother, helped create the program that her daughter now oversees as state superintendent. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Denise Juneau speaks at the Indian Education for All Best Practices Conference. Carol Juneau, Denise’s mother, helped create the program that her daughter now oversees as state superintendent.

Inside the mansion, large living room windows overlook the Capitol Rotunda. Chairs are embroidered with the Montana state seal, depicting the words "Oro y Plata," the state's motto, which means "gold and silver."

Denise Juneau sips a diet soda and works the crowd. Everyone's gathered to celebrate International Women's Day and to support a fundraiser to benefit the "Montana Woman's Mural." When the mural is painted next year, it will commemorate the 100-year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.

But while the event is focused on International Women's Day, Juneau is more concerned with the day's developments in the state House of Representatives. Earlier, the House Appropriations Committee heard Juneau's budget pitch for funding Montana Public Schools. She's asking the legislature to invest $1.5 billion into the K-12 education system this session.

While mingling at the fundraiser, she mines lawmakers for more information about the fate of her request. She learns that efforts to trim her budget will likely be rolled out the following Monday. At one point she lingers in a corner of the room with first-term Democratic Rep. Kim Dudik of Missoula. The women attended the University of Montana School of Law together and Dudik now sits on the House Appropriations Committee that helps decide her budget's fate.

As the event comes to a close, Juneau almost collides with Gov. Steve Bullock in a doorway between the living room and dining room. After hearing from legislators all evening, Juneau expresses concern about where her budget stands and the upcoming vote.

Stan and Carol Juneau with their children, Ron and Denise. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DENISE JUNEAU
  • Photo courtesy of Denise Juneau
  • Stan and Carol Juneau with their children, Ron and Denise.

"I'll have a bad day on Monday, I think," Juneau tells the governor. "I'll call you about it."

Juneau is fiercely protective of her budget and passionate about her work as state superintendent. She says it was public education, after all, that helped set her on a path that would take her to Montana State University, Harvard, UM Law and eventually lead to stuffed mushrooms and fruit salad at the Governor's Mansion. As Juneau told Democratic National Convention delegates in September, "Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children that they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League."

It's because of her personal history through public education that she so aggressively defends its funding. She admits that the issue causes her to lose her cool now and then, mostly when she feels that something is out of her control, like when lawmakers cut her budget. "Five minute rants, maybe, but then I'm done," Juneau says. "I have my little tantrum, and then I'm good."

The best example came during the 2011 legislative session as fiscal conservatives rolled out a budget proposal that moved to cut education spending. Juneau reacted strongly, and her colorful language was quoted throughout state media.

"I'm excited for them to wave the magic handkerchief and pull a rabbit out of the hat to come up with their vision for education," she was quoted as saying in the Billings Gazette. "Hopefully their rabbit may provide a plan. What I'm afraid of is the rabbit may not have an eye for a vision."

Juneau's Helena office now features a stuffed rabbit perched inside a black top hat. It was a gift from her staff.

Juneau's communication director, Allyson Hagen, chooses her words carefully when asked if her boss has a temper. "High expectations," Hagen says. "That's how I would describe it."

In 2011, Juneau's "high expectations" grabbed the nation's attention, when The New York Times reported that she was leading an "educational insurrection" against the federal government's unpopular No Child Left Behind Act, passed into law in 2002 by George W. Bush.

In April, Juneau had sent a protest letter to officials in Washington, D.C., decrying the "strict across the board, one-size-fits-all" mandates included in No Child Left Behind. As the Times reported, "Six weeks later, she hosted a meeting of school chiefs from 10 rural states and passed around her defiant letter. 'We're not asking for permission,' Ms. Juneau told the group. 'We're just telling them we won't raise our annual objectives this year.'"

Despite threats of federal funding cuts, Juneau stood her ground. Superintendents in Idaho and Utah in the coming weeks sent similarly defiant letters to federal officials. The standoff was eventually called off when the Department of Education reportedly discovered that Montana hadn't taken advantage of an earlier opportunity to adjust its testing targets.

As Juneau told The New York Times, "I consider that a win."


Denise Juneau comes from a line of tough women. Her mother, Carol, was born on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in 1945. It was a time of upheaval. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Akira tribes of Fort Berthold had only begun to bounce back from the lingering effects of federal expansion, notably a smallpox epidemic that nearly eliminated the entire Mandan tribe.

After settling on the reservation in the mid-19th century, the tribes had begun a revival, planting crops in the fertile soil near Minot on the banks of the Missouri River. They also raised horses and cattle. The revival was short-lived.

In 1944, Congress approved legislation that directed the Army Corps of Engineers to dam the Missouri River on Fort Berthold to help facilitate irrigation. According to a 1948 report from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the problem was the plan necessitated flooding "the best lands of the Fort Berthold Indians."

Denise Juneau in her Helena office. On one of her walls she displays an issue of Oprah magazine that named her one of the nation’s 12 elected officials most likely to “Get things done.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Denise Juneau in her Helena office. On one of her walls she displays an issue of Oprah magazine that named her one of the nation’s 12 elected officials most likely to “Get things done.”

In May of 1948, when tribal chairman George Gillette arrived in Washington, D.C., to consent to the taking, Carol Juneau was 3 years old. Newspapers reported that Gillette signed the documents in tears, saying, ''Right now, the future does not look too good for us.''

Indigenous people weren't uniformly granted the right to vote until the mid-1960s, leaving little recourse against such incursions. Carol Juneau's mother and her friends and family on Fort Berthold could only watch hopelessly as their agricultural land and precious timber stock were submerged under water.

Carol Juneau says that despite the upheaval, or perhaps because of it, her mother made a point to ensure that each of her 10 children received an education.

"I often wonder how my mom provided for us," Carol Juneau says. "We all went to school."

Seeing few options amid the grinding poverty on Fort Berthold, Carol left North Dakota to finish high school in California, where her older sister had been relocated through a federal program that moved some 100,000 American Indians to urban centers. The relocation program marked an attempt to assimilate indigenous people into the dominant culture.

Carol later attended a vocational school in Kansas. It was there that she met her future husband, Stan Juneau, a Blackfeet from Montana. The couple married and on April 5, 1967, Carol gave birth to her dark-haired and blue-eyed daughter, Denise.

Carol and Stan moved the family to Montana, where they both attended college. In 1980, Carol earned a master's degree in education from the University of Montana. She and her husband would both champion the value of education to overcome the challenges faced by the rural poor.

When Denise was in second grade, the family moved to Browning, her father's hometown on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Dotted with rolling hay and alfalfa fields, it's home to roughly 9,000 enrolled members of the Blackfeet Nation. Many of their neighbors struggle with the effects of lingering poverty. Stan and Carol Juneau, however, were both employed as educators and, as such, enjoyed regular paychecks.

"Anywhere else we'd probably be middle class, but there we were a wealthy family," Denise Juneau says. Education and politics were part of the day-to-day discourse in the Juneau household. Through those conversations, Carol and Stan made it a point to teach their children to assert themselves. "You have to speak up, don't be afraid," Carol recalls saying. "It's your right."

Carol says it took time for Denise to embody that personal strength. She wasn't naturally aggressive. In fact, she was actually a shy kid, hiding behind the legs of her parents when meeting strangers, peering out to investigate foreign faces. "She was just wanting to be comfortable with people, making sure she could trust them," Carol Juneau recalls.

Denise Juneau receiving a legislative briefing from her staff. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Denise Juneau receiving a legislative briefing from her staff.

Over the years, though, Denise learned valuable lessons from watching her mother fight for Native rights. When Carol ran for the Montana House in 1998, Denise, then 31, got her first real taste of politicking. Carol went on to serve 12 years in Helena, consistently advocating for education and to advance indigenous voting rights.

Another lesson Denise learned from her mother was the importance of home. Her parents instilled a sense of pride in the reservation and a commitment to improving the quality of life. Although Denise earned a bachelor's in English from Montana State University, a law degree from the University of Montana and a master's degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education, she went to her mother's old home on the Fort Berthold Reservation in 1994. Denise taught 9th and 10th grade English and coached speech and debate.


On a recent Monday morning Denise Juneau wears black slacks, a gray jacket and beaded rainbow earrings. Her hair is cut in a tidy bob and her fingernails are done in a French manicure. By the end of this long day, full of formulating legislative strategies, making public appearances and planning a weekend trip to Harvard to speak at her alma mater, her bob isn't quite as tidy. But her enthusiasm hasn't waned.

"You hit the wall now and then, but otherwise it's fine," she says.

Juneau believes she's making progress in Montana schools. During the 2011-12 school year, for instance, graduation rates reached 83.9 percent, up from 82.2 percent the year prior. Similarly, test scores show that 86 percent of public school students were proficient in reading last year compared to 78 percent during the 2005-06 school year.

In light of those accomplishments and her emerging national profile, it remains curious how Juneau could find herself in such a tight race during the last election. But there's one aspect to Juneau's leadership and stubbornness that has created adversaries. She surmises that it was her work on the Montana Board of Land Commissioners that made her a target during her re-election campaign.

"I think the negative things that came out this election cycle were all Land Board based," Juneau says.

In 2009, less than a year after she stepped into her position as superintendant of public instruction, the Land Board was charged with weighing the benefits of leasing public land on the Powder River Basin for coal development. The board—comprising the governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and superintendent—is charged with leasing and selling the state's natural resources on behalf of the public. Money generated by Land Board deals goes to public schools. Therefore, individual members have a significant amount of sway to dictate management of the state's publicly owned land.

From left to right, Office of Public Instruction staffer Deborah Halliday, Denise Juneau and OPI communication director Allyson Hagen at the Capitol. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • From left to right, Office of Public Instruction staffer Deborah Halliday, Denise Juneau and OPI communication director Allyson Hagen at the Capitol.

During the board's many months of deliberations over a proposal to allow Arch Coal to mine the Powder River Basin, Juneau attended contentious public meetings and heard both proponents and opponents argue their cases. She also read up on environmental law and, along with members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, toured the mining area, which has been home to Plains Indians for thousands of years.

"It's a very pristine area," Juneau says. "I worry about the water down there. There's not a lot for the ranchers and agricultural things that go on. The water is a huge issue and just the cultural significance—there are a lot of artisan springs that have cultural significance for the Northern Cheyenne."

Juneau took those concerns to heart and says she felt compelled to vote against the deal. During the final vote on the project, she was the only Land Board member to say "no."

Environmentalists praised her; Montana Conservation Voters even granted her the 2010 "Conservation Champion Award."

The "no" vote also earned Juneau enemies. In the months leading up to her re-election bid, her challenger, Sandy Welch, accused the superintendent of playing politics to the detriment of Montana's schoolchildren.

"Denise Juneau is more interested in her political career and the special interests that support her political career," Welch said during a recorded address after Juneau's Democratic National Convention speech. "This is why Denise Juneau is in public office."

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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