Students credited with new law
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John Kelleher Havre Daily News [email protected]
Montana will celebrate American Indian Heritage Day for the first time on Friday. The holiday came about in large part because of determined students at Hays-Lodge Pole High School. Their campaign to get the day established started in May 2008, when State Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, then a Senate representative, spoke to the school's annual academic banquet. He challenged students, as he had challenged young people in the other eight high schools in or near his district, to help create laws in the state. He asked them to come up with an idea for a bill he could introduce in the Legislature. The students would then lobby for the bill and follow it through the legislative process. At the start of this school year, juniors and seniors met with teachers to decide what they should push for in Helena. Science teacher Ann Maiers came up with the proposal to have a state holiday in honor of American Indians. The idea caught on. Teachers were excited about the idea, but were bracing students for failure. "I was worried at the beginning that maybe we would have to watch their hearts get broken," said history teacher Brandi Horn. Other schools came up with programs. In one disTrict, students asked that the Native American emblem be part of the Montana state flag. Box Elder students proposed that fines for poaching and other such violations be increased in order to fund youth programs. The proposals died in committee, Windy Boy said. But the Hays-Lodge Pole students fought hard, he said, praising them for their tenacity. Five students Joseph Quincy, Samantha Webb, Charlene Healy, Charmayne Healy and Christina Flansburg were elected by their peers to head the effort. They attended hearings before Senate committees. Students talked to lawmakers, trying to impress on them the importance of the bill. "We told them that years ago our people had their land and everything taken away," Webb said. They ran into opposition. One lawmaker said that she opposed the bill because there were already enough state holidays and that as an Irish-American no holidays were reserved for her, Webb recalled. Besides, she said, Native Americans pay no state taxes. "Senator Windy Boy responded that Native Americans do pay taxes and that Irish do have a holiday St. Patrick's Day," she said. The legislation was cleared by committee and was approved by the Senate 34-16. "The students were great; and the school was very helpful," Windy Boy said. Events sometimes turn quickly in Helena, he said. "We'd call the school and say 'there is a hearing tomorrow,'" Windy Boy said. "The students would be in Helena the next day." The students worked again to win approval in the House of Representatives, where Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, carried the bill. The bill was approved 82-17. Students, faculty and staff joined in the bill-signing ceremony when Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed the bill into law. Tears were shed. In March, the entire junior and senior classes went to Helena to tour the Capitol and see one of their peers, Charlene Healy, serving as Windy Boy's page. As they sat in the audience, they were introduced by House Majority Leader Margaret Campbell, D-Poplar. "The bill was proposed numerous times over the past 30 years. I feel it was passed because of the enthusiasm of the Hays-Lodge Pole students. They took ownership of the bill from the start," said histroy teacher Holly Allen-King. "It was scary at the beginning, but the legislators helped guide the students to what became a success," said Allen- King. Webb said she and the other students were intimidated when they first went into the massive halls of the state capitol. But they became more assured as the process went along. "Because we are Native Americans, a lot of people thought we can't do things that others do," she said. "We showed them that's not the case." If Windy Boy gets his way, this won't be the last time the students are in Helena. "In a few years, I'll be term-limited," he said. "I would like to see these students run to replace me."