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.
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
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
"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. …