'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 , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

The morning after the primary, Williams phoned both Yellowtail and Republican challenger Rick Hill to congratulate them and advise them to "bypass smear" campaigns "for the sake of Montana."

Political observers doubt that GOP national strategists will heed such advice, given that William's seat is considered important to maintaining Republican control of the House.

But Mr. Hill, a businessman and longtime GOP organizer in Montana's capital city of Helena, says he will not bring up Yellowtail's personal travails. "I don't think those things belong in the campaign," Hill says. "Mr. Yellowtail has made and accounting of himself to the people of Montana and those are not issues we intend to raise. The differences between he and I are clear."

Hill draws directly from the GOP playbook, calling for smaller, cheaper, and less intrusive federal government. His opponent, says Hill, is a classic liberal and a Democrat in sync with the Clinton administration. After mentioning the freemen and Unabomber, Hills says: "The people of Montana are just as diverse as anywhere else in the country. They're patriotic and they care about liberty but they don't want the government in their face."

Yellowtail agrees. His own place of solace is the family cattle ranch on the Crow Reservation not far from where George Armstrong Custer and a portion of the 7th Cavalry met their end on the banks of the Little Bighorn River.

Tall, burly, and possessing a gentle, baritone voice, Yellowtail has few overtly Native American features save his brown eyes.

As a boy, Yellowtail grew up with no running water, electricity of telephone. He bathed in a creek. The nearest neighbors were a dozen miles away. His world was shaped by interaction with an extended family and a resentment toward being treated as mere subjects by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Bill Yellowtail sees the world through the Indian world view which is sometimes different from the prevailing world view," says Charles Wilkinson, an authority on land policy at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Yellowtail's style, he says, stands in contrast to another native American already in Washington - Colorado's Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell who defected to the Republican party.

"Ben is a smart, capable politician but Bill grew up on the reservation and came out of the Indian sovereignty movement of the 1960s," Wilkinson says. "Yes, Yellowtail is a Democrat but he's also a conservative in the deepest sense because he knows what can happen when people are pushed into acting quickly and making bad deals."

After college, Yellowtail went on to become an influential rancher and state senator, and recently served as regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver.

After 25 years of experience with the EPA protecting public health, "the overriding lesson is that one environmental regulation does not fit all situations," Yellowtail says. "We have to be flexible and we have to bring private landowners into the equation. That's just common sense and it isn't a partisan issue."

Political analyst Dan DuBray says Montanans appear willing to see Yellowtail's infallibility as an asset rather than liability. Barring new revelations, the race is Yellowtail's to lose.

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