In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Clarena M. Brockie, Dean of Students at Aaniiih Nakoda College and former member of the Montana House of Representatives.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Clarena M. Brockie. I am Dean of Students at Aaniiih Nakoda College and a former representative in the Montana State Legislature. My Indian name is Watsi, which means Plume. I come from the Frozen Clan and the Fast Travelers Clan.
What tribes are you affiliated with?
I am an enrolled member of the Aaniiih Nin (also known as Gros Ventre) of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Montana, where the Nakoda (Assiniboine) also reside.
What is a significant point in history from your tribes that you would like to share?
I'd like to talk about three significant points in our history. The first is the Grinnell Agreement of 1895: In 1888, by executive order, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation was established for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. (Earlier treaties of 1851 and 1855 created a much bigger territory.) Around the same time, two trespassing miners discovered gold in the Little Rocky Mountains, within the southern boundary of the reservation. In the 1890s, the tribes were pressured to sell the area where gold was discovered and to accept a price of $360,000. That was the Grinnell Agreement; there is a notch called the Grinnell Notch where the land was carved out. The mining of this area produced billions of dollars. The tribes were later paid for the value of the land in the 1890s and the interest made off of that value. Oral history tells that the Indian agent took the funds for taking care of the tribes.
By the 1990s, the Little Rocky Mountains were the site of the second largest "leach-pit" mine in the world. Extraction ceased 20 years ago, but the area continues to be monitored for the devastating effect the mine has had on the environment and the health of the people, and for the damage it has caused to sacred sites.
The second point in history is the Winters Doctrine: The Supreme Court's decision in Winters vs. United States (1908) established Indian Reserved Water Rights for all tribes. This case originated from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. In essence the land was worthless without the proper amounts of water to sustain the reservation, which was established to encourage communal living and to promote farming.
The third is the idea of Vanishing Indians: In the late 1800s, forced to live on the reservation with limited hunting, many of our tribal members died, especially the young and old. No more buffalo, no way of building buffalo-hide lodges, those lodges that did exist were full of holes. Many people slept on the ground and froze to death. Many starved. By 1905, the Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) tribe had dwindled down to fewer than 500 members. This is from an estimate of 15,000 members before the establishment of the reservation. Al Kroeber, an anthropologist, visited Fort Belknap in 1908 to collect what he could from the Aaniiih to insure the history was intact. On Kroeber's heels came Clark Wissler, collecting what he could on the Aaniiih. One evening during this time, a Gros Ventre chief told the people, “We are going to rebuild our tribe. Those of you of marrying age, by nightfall I want all of you to select your mate.” No one would refuse an offer of marriage. This was so true of many tribes who just fell off the face of earth. Today the enrolled membership of the reservation is approximately 7,000; the Aaniiih make up a little more than half of that population and the Nakoda a little less than half.
How is your state government set up?
The government of Montana has legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Within the legislature, there are 100 representatives and 50 senators. Elected offices within the executive and legislative branches have term limits.
How are leaders of the legislature chosen?
Representatives and senators who want to serve in leadership will let others know they are seeking this position, or members will be asked if they would like to be in a leadership position, especially those members demonstrating particular skills and abilities.
Are Democrats or Republicans more dominant in your state? Do people vote along party lines?
Republicans control both the Montana Senate and House, although the governor is a Democrat. Voting within the legislature is along party lines. Certain issues, however, receive support from both parties. In some cases, Republican House members are divided on certain issues.
Are there any other Native Americans who are elected leaders in your state?
Montana has nine Native members of the legislature, more than any other state.
Montana State Senator Jonathan Windy Boy (Chippewa Cree), Representative Brockie, and Representative Lea Whitford (Blackfeet) at the Capitol in Helena, Montana.
How many tribes live in your state?
Montana is home to 10 federally recognized tribes—Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Salish, Kootenai, and Sioux—and one state-recognized tribe—Little Shell.
Do you ever meet with the Native people of your state?
Although I currently am not a representative, I continue to meet with the Montana and Wyoming tribal leaders and with people at tribal colleges and public schools located on reservations. I am particularly interested in hearing about people's experiences with issues such as education, land, jurisdiction, voting, buffalo and bison management, water rights, domestic violence, and childcare.
Do Native people in Montana vote in state elections?
Yes, we do, especially when Native Americans run for the legislature in Montana. The voter turnout is better in a presidential election year. Montana Native Americans are mostly Democrats. We have a Native American running for a seat on Congress, Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet Tribe, who is currently the Montana superintendent of Public Instruction, which is also an elected position.
How often does your state congress meet?
The Montana State Legislature meets at the State Capitol every other year. However, members continue to work through special committee meetings or studies.
What responsibilities did you have as a state representative?
I represented two tribes as well as the many farmers, ranchers, businessmen, and schools of House District 32. I sat on the Education, State Government, and Local Government committees. Following the session in Helena, I sat on the State Tribal Relations Committee. I was also appointed by the governor to serve on several state committees. Most recently I was asked if I would be interested in serving on the State Probations and Parole Board. I served as the mistress of ceremonies for the State Tribal Relations Committee in 2013 and was the keynote speaker for the State Conference on Violence against Indian Women that same year.
What is a significant point in Montana state history that you would like to share?
In 1992, an enrolled Gros Ventre tribal member, Loren "Bum" Stiffarm, decided to run in the Democratic primary for representative of Montana’s House District 32. The incumbent was Francis Bardanouve, who by then had been elected to the seat through 15 consecutive campaigns and had served 34 consecutive years. Rep. Bardanouve won the election in 1992 as well, by a large margin, but the outcome was nevertheless fascinating: Mr. Bardanouve garnered 81 percent of the votes off the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Mr. Stiffarm also garnered 81 percent of the votes—on the reservation. Eligible white voters clearly outnumbered eligible Indian voters in the district. Lawsuits were filed to create new boundaries for the legislative districts in Montana that would even out the number of eligible white and Indian voters. This gave Native Americans in Montana an opportunity to engage in the legislative affairs in the state.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your community?
I have worked for over 40 years. I have an associate degree in Health Administration and worked for the federal government over nine years. I was also a federal women’s program representative and EEO officer for the Indian Health Service. I was the youngest boss in the Rocky Mountain Region, working as both acting service unit director and administrative officer. I worked for the Fort Belknap Indian Community as the director of vocational education (15 years) and in-kind director for women’s educational equity. During that time I was selected for a Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, an Outstanding Young Women of America, and 1988 Montana Indian Educator of the Year. I also traveled to Norway as a chaperon for the Norwegian Student Exchange Program.
I was originally recruited by Fort Belknap College—now Aaniiih Nakoda College—to get the radio station up and running, including supervising the station's construction. KGVA 88.1 FM went "on air" in October 1996. I worked in Institutional Development writing grants for the college until I was appointed Secretary–Treasurer in November 1997. In November 2000 I was hired as the Dean of Students. In 2012 I ran for House District 32 and was sworn in to the Montana House of Representatives in January 2013.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Business, with a minor in Native American Studies, and a master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona. I am a rancher and live near the Little Rocky Mountains, close to my children and grandchildren.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I come from a traditional family, and I would have to say my family. My grandmothers who kept us close to our traditions through oral stories, rituals, such as berry picking, picking roots, and taught us what Aaniiih we know. My grandfather for his leadership and stories. And my parents, who taught me and my brothers and sisters wonderful values and traditions. We continue to participate in our traditions and ceremonies and pass on those stories to our children.
Are you a descendant of a historical Leader?
My grandfather, Clarence Brockie, died in 1949. He was the tribal chairman for over 18 years. My father, who will be 87 this year, was on the tribal council for 12 years.
Approximately how many constituents are in your district? Approximately how many are Native American?
There are 9,338 total constituents of Montana House District 32; 6160 or 66 percent are Native American.
Dean Brockie at work as a member of the Montana House of Representatives.
How have you used your elected position to help Natives and other minorities?
I sponsored a bill to change the tuition waiver so that it would recognize students from all federally and state-recognized tribes in Montana. Prior to that a student had to be at least one-quarter blood quantum. It is the sovereign right of tribes to determine their enrollment. I didn’t ask that the enrollment be increased or decreased, just that the waiver ought to be available to all students who were federally or state-enrolled. I co-sponsored and carried to passage a Native American language bill that received funding of two million dollars. I co-sponsored a bill that names a portion of Highway 2 after a deputy who was shot in the line of duty and who was also a student at Aaniiih Nakoda College. I tried to testify on all bills that benefited the communities I represented and I testified against those that were detrimental to our communities. I paid for two pages to participate during the legislature. I continue to support voting rights of Native Americans.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your Native community?
I work at a tribal college and am already impressed with the leadership of the young people in community. Two students at Aaniiih Nakoda College took a hiatus to work on a Meth Prevention Project and have attracted the attention of Montana tribal leaders and Senator John Tester. My message to young people would be that they take care of themselves spiritually, physically, and mentally. And I want them to know that there is always someone who will help them along the way. Life presents many opportunities and challenges, but with the right direction they can accomplish a lot.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
On the day that Governor Steven Bullock was sworn in, in January 2013 (legislators were sworn in just a few days before), I sat in a special section of seating for tribal leaders at the base of the steps leading to the State Capitol Building. I was with my son Andrew Werk, who was on the Fort Belknap Tribal Council at that time. An honor song was sung by a man from the Salish and Kootenai tribes. You could hear the song's echo sitting in the valley of the mountains. I never felt that I didn’t belong there, and I thought, “Finally we are taking our place in history. How proud our ancestors must be.”
Photos courtesy of the Montana State Legislature, used with permission.
To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.