HELENA - Jimmy St. Goddard wore a white tuxedo and an eagle feather headdress into the civic center, leading the way for Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who danced into the ballroom behind him Saturday night.
This was the kickoff for the largest and most formal of three inaugural ball parties.
"It's interesting when the chief executive walks in behind the man with the headdress," said Samantha Coulter of Helena, who was among more than 3,000 people attending inaugural events between the Helena Civic Center, Carroll College and the Great Northern Hotel.
Blackfeet Nation Tribal Councilman St. Goddard ushered Schweitzer into the civic center ballroom as a sign of respect, a common tradition among many tribes. Native people were allowed to further honor the governor through traditional song and dance. Drummers representing tribes across the state sang an honor song as the governor made his way into the room.
"Being invited is an honor itself," said singer Conrad Fisher of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. "To be able to have this working relationship with the state government is unprecedented, especially at a ball like this. To sing this song is unique."
The evening proved to be a vivid mix of cultures with some Natives sporting traditional dress, mingling with non-Natives wearing sequined dresses. Juanita Sloss of Browning was given the honor of dancing with the governor as the two led ball-goers in an Owl Dance.
"I'm happy to be here," said Sloss. "I've never been to anything like this in my life. I didn't know things like this existed."
Roberta Fog in the Morning, a nurse from Bozeman, said she never thought of attending any previous governor's ball. But this administration is different, she said. "Gov. Schweitzer is the first governor to empower the Native American Indians. I think that's great," she said as she stood near the drum group.
"I thought the tone was superb," said Tim Coulter of the Indian Law Resource Center. "It was positive recognition of Indian people in Montana. As a leader, he's not doing this because he needed the votes. He recognizes they are a leading part of this society."
To wit: Schweitzer has appointed several Native people to key positions within his administration, including senior roles in policy and transportation. Many more have been considered and selected for prominent boards, including the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Last week, he named Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation and Janine Pease of the Crow Nation to the Board of Investments and the Montana Human Rights Commission, respectively.
Cobell, one of four new Board of Investments members, will be responsible for investing state funds in the Unified Investment Program. And she will help provide investment solutions for new and expanding Montana businesses.
She now serves as executive director of the Native American Community Development Corp., and also helped found the country's first Native-owned bank, which became the Native American Bank. For her work in holding the federal government accountable, she received a 1997 "genius grant" from the McArthur Foundation.
Pease, one of three new appointments for the Montana Human Rights Commission, will help lead the quasijudicial board in upholding the state's anti-discrimination laws.
She is Rocky Mountain College's vice president for American Indian Affairs. In 1990, she was named the 1990 Indian Educator of the Year, and in 1994 she also received a McArthur genius grant award for her work in education.
St. Goddard described the blooming relationship as nothing less than spiritual. The new circumstances are further bolstered by the presence of eight Natives holding seats in the Legislature.
"He's done more for Indian Country in a month and a half than the other 23 governors in Montana history," Rep. Jonathon Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, told the packed ballroom. His remarks brought cheers and applause.
Schweitzer's inclusive covenant with Native people is not lost on non-Natives, either.
"As a white person, it's about time Native people got included in the process," said actress Margot Kidder of Livingston. "I think Schweitzer realizes that."
As the evening wound to a close, Becky Deschamps of Missoula shook drummer Dave Jersey's hand. "It's something we've not had in Montana recognition of the people that preceded us," she said. "I think it's wonderful this administration not only recognized them but thanked them for their contributions to this state."