By SARAH R. CRAIG
Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Any conversation with Reno Charette can quickly turn into a history lesson, and she's not talking about Christopher Columbus.
Though Gov. Brian Schweitzer's newly appointed coordinator of American Indian Affairs holds a master's degree in history, she wants to tell history the way she sees it - as a woman and a Crow Indian.
''The retelling, whether it's oral or written, is important and particularly important for native people because so much of our perspective is not in the mainstream,'' Charette said. ''If you're looking at key historical events, it's actually without a lot of voices, the female voice and any minority voice, the disabled voice, and I think I always wanted to have a skill to tell those stories that aren't dominant.''
Drums, blankets and headdresses decorate Charette's office, where she's creating a second home for Indians who visit the Capitol. It wasn't too long ago that the office was vacant, left open by former Republican Gov. Judy Martz.
Charette is still finding her way in the Cabinet-level post, defining her role, and seeking places to find Indian beadwork in Helena. Among her first projects is preparing reports on each of Montana's tribes to familiarize Schweitzer and his employees with each culture.
''If you had never been to France before, and you were going to go there, how would you prepare yourself to function in that community as a tourist, let alone going there to negotiate business, nation-to-nation business?'' Charette said.
Eventually those profiles will be posted on the state Web site, she said, along with a master calendar of events like powwows and rodeos across the state.
Before Schweitzer appointed her, Charette worked on the Big Horn Teacher Projects at Montana State University-Billings since 1999. There she worked in a system called the ''making relatives approach.'' She created an office space that felt like a home-away-from-home for Indian students, and provided academic advising that took into account elders and children that students might be caring for.
The program has placed 24 new Indian teachers in eight communities where there is a large enrollment of Indian children, and 35 teachers from the project are expected to graduate in 2005 - 30 of them Crow tribal members.
Charette said that kind of program could have helped her when she was struggling through graduate school as a single mother, though she feels that process was character building.
''I think it challenged me to do what I had to do with very little resources,'' Charette said.
Charette's mother is Crow, her father Turtle-Mountain Chippewa, and she grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
She lived with her grandparents during high school, when her parents moved away to work on an adult job training program led by former Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont.
In her grandparents' home, she learned the art of storytelling. Her grandparents' friendships involved many gatherings to tell stories and have coffee, and she said that's probably what led her to seek a history degree.
From those stories, Charette learned the importance of helping others, ''that there was honor in being of service to your community.''
She graduated from St. Labre Indian School in Ashland and earned a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from UM, where she also received a master's degree in history.
Friend Constance James said Charette is held in high regard by many people.
''She's called upon from lots of different people to participate in ceremonies because she represents goodness,'' James said. ''She's a very kind and loving person. She's very thoughtful.''
''She has always and consistently been a person that I took counsel from, that I trust personally and professionally her opinions about things: life, the weather, men,'' James added. ''She epitomizes class from a Native American perspective.''
Charette said most Indian people who visit the Capitol eventually find their way to her office, saying they're glad to see the position filled.
Schweitzer said his brother, Walt, interviewed Charette, and gave her a rave review.
''After he met her he said, 'Brian, you've got to meet this woman, she rises to the top.' When somebody I know and trust tells me that ... I was watching for her. I knew that this was someone that was uniquely qualified to be an adviser to all of Montana on our relationships in Indian country.''
Indian perspectives have not been communicated effectively over the years, Charette said.
For example, in the 1970s when the state was looking to develop mining in Colstrip, about 20 miles north of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, most people didn't understand the tribe's fears, Charette said.
''The common Montanan across the state probably didn't understand the hits the culture was going to take in terms of a large number of non-Indians moving into that area,'' she said. ''That increases the likelihood that you're going to have more mixed marriages, so rather than have enrollable children you're now going to have children who have native heritage but they're not enrollable, which can mean a loss of language, a loss of the culture.''