During a long career as a professor, college administrator and educational activist, Patrick Weasel Head worked to promote diversity and increase the Native American presence within various organizations. But he says he often heard a familiar response: "Well, Patrick, we can't get any Indians to apply." So when Weasel Head heard last month about an open seat on Missoula City Council, he decided to put his hat in the ring in order to remove that excuse and make members actively decide whether they wanted a Native member.
On Feb. 23, council decided it did, voting 7-5 to select Weasel Head to replace Caitlin Copple as one of two Ward 4 representatives and to make him the body's first known Native American member.
"Ever since," Weasel Head says, "I've been wondering, what options do I have now, now that I'm on the city council?"
Though he's still getting his bearings and figuring out how the body is able to effect change, Weasel Head knows generally what he'd like to accomplish during his tenure.
"I look at helping the disenfranchised: LGBT, people of color, poor, homeless—all that," Weasel Head says.
In part, this interest in helping the less-privileged and less-powerful comes from his own experience as a gay 70-year-old Native American who was the first person in his family to graduate high school and who served in Vietnam. But it also comes from Weasel Head's active volunteer efforts to help veterans, the elderly and the hungry. Since retiring from the University of Montana in 2010, Weasel Head has stocked shelves at the Missoula Food Bank, driven disabled veterans to medical appointments and delivered food for Meals on Wheels. He also served as executive director of the Missoula Indian Center.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- Newly appointed Councilman Patrick Weasel Head says he hopes to give voice to the marginalized populations he’s encountered through volunteer work with Meals on Wheels and other local nonprofits.
Weasel Head says this experience has helped him see "with a magnifying glass" the marginalized populations of Missoula who otherwise are largely "just invisible." As a member of council, he hopes to help others see—and hear—these people, too.
"In our decision making, we ought to include concepts about what do the homeless think? What do the low-income people think? What do the indigenous people think? What do the LBGT [community members] think?" Weasel Head says. "So you need to put that on the agenda, saying, 'Okay, if we do this, what impact does it have with our constituency out there?' And our constituency is great. Young and old—all these people."
According to Councilwoman Annelise Hedahl, Weasel Head has already helped bring a fresh perspective to council and offered representation to those who she says are "underserved." In a recent committee discussion regarding affordable housing, for example, Weasel Head expressed concern about how certain decisions might impact minorities—a concern that, Hedahl says, other members of council wouldn't have brought up.
"That's what's so great about having Patrick," Hedahl says. "I'm going to be exposed to so much more that I was probably unaware of."
The current executive director of the Missoula Indian Center, LeeAnn Johnson, says Weasel Head's presence on council also represents an opportunity for members of the city's Native American community to have "an avenue and a person to go to" with concerns and ideas. Johnson has known Weasel Head for some 20 years, and she's optimistic about how he will handle his new role.
"As far as having a Native voice in Missoula for that population—or for any population—I think he will do a wonderful job," Johnson says.