Havre Daily News
FORT BELKNAP - Fellow tribal council members and workers at the Fort Belknap Indian Community can tell when council president Julia Doney is in the building.
They can hear her.
When Doney's not whistling through the hallways, she's likely talking. The tribes' first female president, a former educator and Head Start director, is a quick thinker and excellent speaker who has brought council members and residents together with her messages of cooperation and compassion.
This fall, she spoke for more than 40 minutes during her State of the Nations address, an open speech to tribal members about the goals and direction of its governing body, which may have been the tribes' first.
Last month, she brought a Chinook courtroom to tears during her testimony at the sentencing hearing for Laurence Dean Jackson Jr., a tribal member and relative now serving two life sentences, plus 100 years, for killing a Blaine County sheriff's deputy and wounding another.
Fellow council members and friends describe Doney as genuinely compassionate, intelligent and fair.
“She has proved herself as a good leader. She has enrolled members in her heart, in her best interests,” said Raymond Chandler Sr., vice president of the council.
Doney has the “gift of gab,” Chandler said.
“She can go on for hours if you'd let her,” he said. “She has this gift ... she makes people around her feel good. I know she's a good listener, and people feel comfortable with her. She's a person who will listen to their needs and wants, and she'll try, she'll make that phone call. And if she can't do it, she'll tell them. But she always tries.”
“I find her very honest, dependable and fair,” said Gros Ventre River council representative Velva Doore, who has known Doney for 30 years. “She will listen to both sides.”
In a pair of interviews in recent weeks, Doney talked about her family, her faith, her love of educating children, Jackson, the problems at Fort Belknap, and what she thinks can change.
A grandmother with clear eyes and a comfortable smile, Doney was serving as the tribes' Head Start director in May 2004 when then-president Darrell Martin asked her to accept an appointment as the council's vice president. She had never been involved in tribal government before and knew it would be a big step. A born-again Christian, she turned to a higher power.
“God, if this is your will, then I'm there,” Doney prayed. “You have to go with me, because I won't go alone.”
She became the council's first female president in February when Martin resigned, and she won her first election Nov. 2.
Doney's faith came in the midst of her third pregnancy, a difficult one that led doctors to tell her she would have to decide whether to continue the pregnancy, risking both her and the baby's life.
“At that time, I told God: ‘If you're real and you really care for me, you will see me and my child through this,'” Doney said.
The pregnancy was successful.
Doney now prays in the morning and believes God is with her throughout the day. She says prayer is the “answer to everything, big and small.”
Chandler said Doney has an ability to stay focused on her job, and knows the separation between her religious life and her government role.
Doney said she finds daily support in her faith and her family. She came from a family of nine, and her husband of 34 years, Ed, helped her raise a family of five, including one child who was adopted. The family is expecting its 12th grandchild in March.
Her life is comfortable and busy, she said, but she often thinks about what she knows others on the reservation are going through, and how she can change it.
She tells herself that she can't let her workday be over when she leaves the office, even though she has two of her grandchildren to raise.
“I knew I took on a bigger responsibility when I took this office,” she said.
She feels that responsibility when she thinks about the number of suicides at Fort Belknap, which she said is the highest on Montana's seven reservations. Within the last year, Doney said, a 10-year-old child attempted suicide.
“That child is hurting. Why should it get to that point?” she said.
A task force is now working on the reservation to educate people about the problem and provide help over the phone for people in crisis.
She feels her responsibility when she thinks of the high unemployment rate on the reservation, where more than 90 percent of the people are without work in the winter. She thinks economic development will help curb the substance abuse problem at Fort Belknap. When people have jobs, Doney said, they have a reason to get up early and look forward to something. They have the ability to take care of their families and provide the support to their children that is at times lacking.
She felt that responsibility even more when she was called to testify for Jackson.
“Such a fear gripped me as I was testifying,” Doney said. “I had to ask myself: What can we do so that this doesn't happen to any more of our children?”
In compassionate testimony, Doney apologized to both Jackson and the family of his victim, deputy Joshua Rutherford. She said she felt responsible, both as a family member of Jackson and as a community member, for Jackson's life and Rutherford's death. Doney and many in the audience shed tears as she pleaded for the substance abuse, violence and domestic abuse to end at Fort Belknap.
More than a month later, Doney said, she still wakes up at night and thinks about Jackson and other tribal members who are now serving prison sentences. She wonders what can be done to stop it all. She wonders whether tribal members really understand the significance of what Jackson's life was like, and how that affected his actions on May 29, 2003, when Rutherford was fatally shot during a scuffle with Jackson in a field near Harlem.
During the sentencing hearing, defense lawyers called expert witnesses and family members to the stand to testify about the family violence, alcoholism and other problems Jackson faced in his youth. Doney said the testimony “wasn't even half of the true picture. It was worse than that.”
She said the tribes have to work to ensure things change at Fort Belknap.
“We can't let our guards down,” she said. “Sometimes, I wonder if we've just become complacent, that we just accept it. I don't know how much people are thinking about what happened.”
Jackson was one of her Head Start students, a chubby 3-year-old who clung to her each morning before class.
Doney, who spent more than a decade teaching at Head Start, said she still feels a connection with all of her former Head Start kids.
“To me, they're still my Head Start babies,” she said. “I will defend them anytime.
“Children love unconditionally and expect unconditional love in return,” she added.
The people at Fort Belknap need to take the time and use the resources to ensure the development of future generations, she said.
Assiniboine River council representative Kermit Horn said Doney will mentor any young person in need, especially girls.
“She'll step up for any youth with a problem,” Horn said. “If they're in need, she'll be there for them.”
“She can work with the youth and the elderly,” said Doney's longtime friend, Joyce Castillo, a program manager at the Fort Belknap Senior Citizen's Center. “She's really been a genuine asset for our reservation.
“I think she's an honest person,” Castillo added. “You can tell she really cares for people. She can sense that you're feeling down. She's a good person, and I'm proud of her.”
Castillo and Doore both remarked that it is nice to see a female president at Fort Belknap.
After Doney's election, she met with council members and worked to create a message of teamwork and caring, which she presented in her first address to the tribe's members, Horn said. The speech was broadcast on the Fort Belknap radio station, and Doore said she thinks it was the first time a tribal council president spoke to every member who wanted to listen. She said the speech was well-received.
“I was glad that she wanted to do it,” Doore said. “I noticed that a lot of people where listening to what she had to say.”
The speech only added to Doney's reputation as a leader and able speaker. Afterward, Doore said, Doney had earned a new nickname: “Windy.”