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'Indian Cowboy's' Quest for Capitol Hill

Opponents brand him a Clinton Democrat. Supporters say Bill Yellowtail's House bid offers voters a unique blend of prairie conservatism and liberal native American politics

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 7, 1996



WYOLA, MONT.

Before he begins his epic, five month march toward the November general election, Bill Yellowtail intends to go home this week and ground himself in a landscape that has always given him strength.

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Traveling on horseback into the remote, red clay hills of the Crow Indian Reservation, the most talked about man in Montana politics plans to focus his thoughts on a congressional race that already is being viewed as a bellwether for the American West.

In fact, Yellowtail's Capitol Hill quest may not be so different from the solo journeys of 19th-century Crow chiefs who periodically went into the wilderness of the Pryor Mountains seeking visions for how to lead the people.

If elected, Yellowtail would become the first native American Montana has ever sent to Congress. And that, pundits say, would be a profound public expression in a state best known as the hangout of antigovernment "freemen" and Unabomber suspect Ted Kasczynski.

Yellowtail, a self-described "Indian cowboy" and outspoken conservationist, is vying for a seat held the last 18 years by retiring Rep. Pat Williams (D). Although he coasted to victory this week with 56 percent of the vote in the state's Democratic primary, his triumph didn't come without tribulation.

TWO weeks ago, Yellowtail's seemingly invincible lead in the polls was knocked back by three revelations about his personal life. After the news was leaked by anonymous sources, Yellowtail acknowledged that during the 1970s he struck his wife during an argument. Later, after the couple divorced, he failed to make child support payments.

He also admitted that as a student at Dartmouth College in 1967 he was briefly expelled for burglarizing a camera store. Fresh off the reservation and thrown into the exclusive Ivy League setting, Yellowtail committed the crime, he said, because he was poor, feeling desperate, and needed money. Later, the repentant youth was readmitted to Dartmouth after spending time on the family ranch in Montana, where his hard work convinced college deans he deserved a second chance.

As for the allegations of spousal abuse and failure to pay child support, Yellowtail says he now has a cordial relationship with his former wife and made good on the money he owed. Both his former wife and his daughter rallied in support of his candidacy after the revelations.

"The only way I know to carry on is to be honest and forthright," Yellowtail says in an interview. "I was very humbled and gratified by the willingness of voters to place those past mistakes in their proper context,' he added. "They recognize me for who I am. I don't think I fit any stereotype or label."

Yellowtail may be right because pollsters say that enigmatic part of his character is precisely what resonated with fellow Democrats who apparently were willing to forgive past foibles.

Whether the general populace will reach the same conclusion remains unclear. But Yellowtail has already received an unofficial endorsement from the legislator he hopes to replace.

Yellowtail brings "an understanding that an uncaring government, being moved only by popular will, can make incredible mistakes which haunt people for generations," says Representative Williams. "As an Indian, he has a visceral, heart-felt knowledge of the dilemma facing America's dispossessed people."