Juneau: Indian heritage will help in Montana’s superintendents job

Helena, Montana (AP) 1-09

Montana’s first American Indian state schools superintendent, Denise Juneau, says she’s an American Indian first – but didn’t want to be viewed as a single-issue candidate, either.

Juneau was sworn in on Dec. 29. She is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota.

“I think you’re always an American Indian first,” she said. “It’s a very unique relationship and very unique perspective to have. It will help in all kinds of ways.”

Juneau said it’s important to be true to who you are and where you came from, but it’s also important to understand other perspectives.


Juneau was born in Oakland, Calif., and moved to Billings when she was 2. Her family then moved to Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation, where Juneau grew up. Juneau said she learned about her heritage through cultural events her family attended, but never in the classroom.

“I think it was just from an immersion in the community,” she said. “It wasn’t separate and apart from growing up. There was an understanding of who you were and how much Indian blood you had.”

Her mother, Carol Juneau, said Indian culture should have been part of her daughter’s education.

“It would have been good for Denise to learn some of the language, for example,” she said. “Neither Stan or I are native speakers. I think that kind of centers kids.”

Dulce Whitford, a childhood friend from Browning, said the two grew up in the Last Star Housing Project.

“We were just instant friends,” Whitford said. “We were the tallest gals in the group.”

The girls played basketball together.

“She was just a team player. She was never negative, even when I played against her,” Whitford said.

Juneau went to Montana State and then Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in education. She taught on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota and later received a law degree from the University of Montana.

Juneau won a four-way Democratic primary in June. She beat Republican Elaine Sollie Herman 51 percent to 44 percent in the November general election.