By Tim Leeds
A capacity crowd filled the Blaine County Courthouse Tuesday for a historic swearing-in ceremony.
District Judge John McKeon administered the oath of office to M. Dolores Plumage, the first Native American county commissioner elected in Blaine County.
"This is a great day. It has been a long time coming," Plumage said during ceremonies and presentations after the oath of office.
The Dry Lake Singers of Hays were part of the celebration, performing a traditional Native American welcoming song and a victory song.
Also sworn in were Clerk and Recorder Sandra Boardman, County Superintendent of Schools Carol Elliot, County Attorney Yvonne Laird, Deputy County Attorney Mark Harshman, Sheriff Glenn Huestis, Justice of the Peace Perry Miller, and Treasurer Wenda Oehmcke.
Plumage was elected after a federal judge ruled that the county had to change its election system. U.S. District Judge Philip Pro ruled in March that Blaine County's at-large voting system, where every voter in the county could vote in every commissioner election, violated the voting rights of Native Americans in the county.
Pro ordered that new commissioner districts be drawn up, with one district containing a majority of Native American voters. Blaine County has appealed the ruling and wants a return to at-large voting. The county is not appealing the new district boundaries.
Elected officials told the crowd of about 70 after the swearing-in ceremony that they hoped relations and cooperation between the county government and the government of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation would improve now that a Native American is sitting on the commission.
Commissioner Don Swenson, who presented a state flag to Plumage "with outstretched hands," said that in the past there have been "wounds" between the governments and the people on and off the reservation.
"Hopefully now we can start the healing process," Swenson said.
Ben Speakthunder, chair of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, and Carole Lankford, chair of the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council from the Flathead Indian Reservation, presented tribal flags to Plumage.
Speakthunder offered his congratulations to all of the elected officials and said the Fort Belknap community will stand by and support Plumage.
He said her election is a major victory.
"It's too bad it had to be filed in court," he said. "We at Fort Belknap just got our rights, as far as voting goes."
Speakthunder said the governments have a lot to learn about better communications and cooperation, but that he looks forward to all of Blaine County working together as a community.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Blaine County in 1999, claiming the county's voting system prevented Native Americans from electing a candidate of their choice. Although more than 45 percent of the county population is Native American, a Native American commissioner had never been elected before Plumage.
Under the plan accepted by Pro, one commission district includes most of the reservation and has about 90 percent Native American voters, one is about 40 percent Native American and one is about 5 percent Native American.
Swenson said before the swearing-in ceremony that communication and cooperation between the county and tribal governments have always been good, but that having Plumage on the commission should make it even better.
Plumage said she plans to rely on Swenson and Art Kleinjan, the county's other commissioner, to mentor her in the duties of a commissioner.
She said she will represent all of the people in Blaine County, not just Native American voters, but that she wants Native Americans to be able to communicate and participate more than they have in the past.
"I hope our Indian people will be better understood," she said.