By SARAH R. CRAIG
Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The smell of burning sweetgrass often wafts through the second floor of the Capitol, from the governor's office to his family policy adviser's office down the hall.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer burns the grass in an American Indian ceremonial cleansing act called smudging, creating a smoky symbol of the space the Whitefish Democrat says he's opened to Indians in state government.
''I don't know that I am more enlightened than the previous 22 governors, but I think it's the time,'' Schweitzer said. ''I think the time has come, that Montanans finally will accept that we are one, both Indian and non-Indian.''
Schweitzer's campaign for governor included promises to reach out to Indian country. He often states that the concerns of ''the first Montanans'' are close to his heart and he's trying to open more doors to Indians in the state.
''I hold things of the earth in reverence, and maybe I share that with native people,'' Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer has appointed Reno Charette, an enrolled Crow tribal member, as coordinator of Indian Affairs. He has also appointed Rhonda Whiting as a Montana representative on the Northwest Power Planning Council and hired her sister, Anna Whiting Sorrell as his family policy adviser.
Six enrolled tribal members - Sioux, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Salish Kootenai - serve in Schweitzer's administration, and he's made six Indian appointments to different state boards and councils.
Whiting Sorrell said she knows that while she and her sister are members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, that's not the sole reason they were hired.
''They made it clear that they wanted to have the Schweitzer team look like Montana, old, young, male, female, cowboys and Indians, but we were all there because of our belief in a common vision and the ability to do that,'' she said.
William ''Allen'' Talks About, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Council, recently questioned whether Schweitzer's campaign promises would come to fruition in the form of financial and other support for tribes. In response, Schweitzer met with the council and other Blackfeet representatives.
The leaders gathered to smudge and pray before the meeting.
''To me, that's to bring us together and to call on the Creator to take all the bad from us so that we can come together,'' Talks About said.
After the meeting, Talks About said he was encouraged, and that perhaps Schweitzer's leadership could help guide the Legislature.
''We're hoping that something happens, a change in our thinking, our understanding, that the first Montanans are in need too,'' Talks About said.
Talks About fears the Legislature may not follow through with support for programs like Indian education, as the House has rejected one piece of legislation critical to his tribe: a proposal to restore millions of dollars to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a welfare program that provides cash assistance to the poor.
Helping the administration implement TANF and other welfare programs is part of Whiting Sorrell's job as family policy adviser. Whiting Sorrell worked as National Native American Outreach Coordinator for the John Kerry 2004 presidential campaign. She said now it's refreshing to have other Indian people to work with, as she was the lone representative on Kerry's campaign.
After Kerry lost, she looked forward to going home to Ronan, but felt she couldn't turn down the chance to work for Schweitzer.
''I know that I'm not here for my own person but I'm here for what I can do for other people,'' she said. ''I know that I'm here because of the generations that came before me and really opened the doors for me to be here, and it's my responsibility to now protect that so that future generations can come forward.''
For Rhonda Whiting, it's a chance to include Indian voices in power planning, which involves resources that tribes have a major interest in like water and fish.
''With many of the tribes the salmon were very much a part of the culture of those tribes, and each one looks at, culturally, some of the wildlife or all living things the Creator brought to us, we all have a different perspective on how we look at those,'' Whiting said.
Major Robinson, an enrolled Northern Cheyenne, works as a senior economic development adviser for Schweitzer, focusing on Indian country. He said Schweitzer has extended a welcome that can be heard even on his remote reservation.
''People knew while he was running that he wanted to create better relationships with the Montana tribes,'' Robinson said. ''Many times the tribes are very skeptical about that, but then once he got into office almost immediately he started putting the word out to all the tribes that he was looking for qualified Native Americans to work in his administration. Once we started seeing him hire a number of tribal members it began to show all of us in Indian country that he was serious about it.''