Celebrating Indigenous leaders in Montana

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the Montana Innocence Project is celebrating three Indigenous leaders in our community. Denise Juneau, Shane Morigeau, and Montana Wilson are at different stages in their careers, but they are all doing the important work to advance Indigenous justice and inspire others to follow. We are excited to share a little bit about their paths and how their Indigenous roots empower them to make change.

Denise Juneau: Making seats at the table 

Juneau grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation where her dad is from, and she is an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota where her mom is from. Both of her parents were public educators and advocates for access to public services. Inspired by her family, Juneau’s first career was as a school teacher. She worked on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation before teaching high school English in her hometown of Browning. 

“That’s always been my passion—making sure that American Indians are graduating,” Juneau said. “I truly believe that it changes life outcomes when you get that high school diploma.”

Juneau went on to work for the State Education Agency focusing on Indian education. Mid-career, she went to law school at the University of Montana. As a lawyer, she practiced Federal Indian Law and focused on tribal economic development issues and tribal sovereignty issues, but she was quickly pulled back to how she sees justice: through education. She ran for the top job in the state and became the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Montana.

In doing that, Juneau became the first American Indian woman elected to a statewide executive position in the country. During her tenure there, she worked on educational justice, bringing Indigenous communities together to identify what supports they needed for their students to be successful in their education system. Juneau raised the graduation rate to historic highs two years in a row. 

Following her time as State Superintendent, Juneau ran for Montana’s seat in the United States House of Representatives. Although she did not win the election, Juneau laid the groundwork for young Indigenous people to see themselves in places they have historically not. 

“As a Native woman traveling into Indian Country and seeing people’s hopes and dreams and the excitement that somebody who comes from a place like they do, who has their lived experience, had the potential to rise up into federal office was pretty significant and really exciting,” Juneau said. “And I think now with Secretary Deb Haaland that we see a lot of movement in that area, which I think is just really great for future generations.” 

Juneau stayed in the field of education, becoming Seattle’s Public School Superintendent where her goal was working towards liberation and justice for all students. She credits her family—namely, her grandmother who was a school cook for 28 years—with her passion for education and helping others. 

“Her ability to recognize and see students individually for who they are as they worked their way through the breakfast line and the lunch line and being an advocate for them to the principle when they may be having a hard day…I think that really played a role in it as well,” Juneau said. “My very first job in high school was working for my grandma in the school kitchen washing dishes, so just instilling in me a big value of making sure that people were taken care of, that we were paying attention, that we were seeing people on an individual level, and then advocating for the supports that they may need.”

Juneau remembered how her mom would always say, “Be the first to the meeting. Help set up. Take your seat at the table even if one’s not offered. And provide a ladder afterwards for those to follow you.” Juneau’s career is marked by the countless ladders she has provided to women and Indigenous people. She just moved back to Montana and is currently serving as the Board Chair for the Voter Participation Center with other exciting projects coming soon. 

Shane Morigeau: Raising the bar 

Shane Morigeau grew up in Ronan, Montana, and is a member of the Salish and Kootenai tribes. He went to Forestry School and Law School at the University of Montana, and he received a Masters of Law in Indigenous Law and Policy at the University of Arizona. 

Following his legal education, Morigeau worked as a prosecutor for the Salish and Kootenai tribes for two years before becoming in-house counsel. In addition to serving as in-house counsel for his tribes, Morigeau is an advocate at the Montana legislature. He worked as a lobbyist for the 2013 and 2015 sessions on Indigenous justice issues including wildlife, education, economic development, and voting rights. He was in the House of Representatives for the 2017 and 2019 sessions and was appointed to the Senate District 48 seat in 2021. 

“I’ve always shifted towards advocating for Native people and Native perspectives because I think that gets lost in a lot of conversations just as I believe the thoughts and perspectives of Native people to Montana get lost in the discussion of Columbus Day or just left out all together,” Morigeau said. “Through all of my advocacy work over my lifetime, it’s always just been to try and really push for people to share the real story in all of history—not just cherry pick what fits their narrative.”

A large part of Morigeau’s advocacy work is representing his constituents in Missoula.

“I have a lot of opportunities to work on really cool stuff to help my tribal membership and my community that I grew up with,” Morigeau said. “Although, I live in Missoula, so I have a responsibility to represent my Missoula community as well. I always keep that in mind. I make sure that I am representing the people that elect me. Fortunately, I think a lot of my community that I represent supports the issues and positions I have in advocating for people of color, including our Native populations. 

Morigeau comes from a low-income family who lived in tribal housing on the Flathead Indian Reservation. He understands the impact of Indigenous leaders firsthand, which is why it has always been his goal to address the deficiencies in Indian Country that he observed growing up.

“I think about the future of our kids, and if we don’t bridge these gaps, we’re going to continue to be at the bottom of every social indicator like most tribal communities are still,” Morigeau said. “But you don’t change these things overnight. You have to chip away at it over time. You have to change the conversation.”

Morigeau approaches these conversations with the philosophy that educating and challenging those around you inspires change. 

“We set the bar so low in so many places, and people get content with where we’re at,” Morigeau said. “For me to kind of change that and move the bar can be a challenge sometimes, but that’s what you have to do. You have to challenge people to do better. Sometimes just spark a little motivation in them whether that’s just putting pressure on them or making them see things through a different lens, explain to them maybe a different way that gets them excited and interested in participating and helping in whatever the issue is at hand.” 

Morigeau is hosting an Indigenous Peoples’ Day Rally today from 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. at the Missoula County Courthouse.

Montana Wilson: Restoring love 

In 2012, Wilson began his career in Indigenous justice as a public defender on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and in 2013, he became a prosecutor for the tribes. Following that, Wilson graduated ​​summa cum laude from Montana State University with degrees in Economics and Political Science. Wilson clerked for Fort Peck’s Chief Judge when he won the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which led to him completing a Masters of Philosophy in Development Studies at Cambridge University. After graduating, he worked as a paralegal in private defense for a year and started law school at the University of Montana in 2019. 

Wilson’s experience working for both the prosecution and defense have informed his knowledge about how the criminal legal system works and how to best utilize it to get positive outcomes for his community. Regardless of which side he has been on, restorative practices have always been central to his work because he believes that Indigenous communities need healing. 

“Our communities were just really battered,” Wilson said. “The fact of the matter is that we are living in a legacy of a genocide. A lot of people in this country don’t realize that Indigenous people are living in a post-apocalyptic society. So they’re dealing with a lot of trauma and dealing with so much. Once you start putting that into perspective, you start realizing that there shouldn’t be anything but love as the response because these people don’t need anymore trauma in their lives.” 

Wilson believes this starts at the intersection of the criminal legal system and the healthcare system. When he graduates from law school in 2022, Wilson wants to return to working for the tribes on Fort Peck. He envisions a position that would work in the public interest to oversee health care and crime. Wilson said this would require participatory research of going out into the communities and asking them what they need, delivering it, and tweaking it as needs change. 

“When we intertwine them together, we can engage in therapeutic treatment,” Wilson said. “As quickly as they come into the system, we can start our efforts to remediate the situation. Once you stop seeing healthcare as the money pit that it is, you start to see it as reform to help people. And when you merge it with criminal justice, you’re going to actually get some serious traction and results in the community. That’s why you see poor people with such high crime. They have so much trauma and they can’t get help. Crime is nothing more than a symptom of something bigger.”

Wilson is Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, and Sioux. His outlook on Indigenous justice and passion to help his community are inspired by his spiritual practices that prioritize balance.

“It should be about bringing balance; that’s what justice is,” Wilson said. “To me, justice is about spreading love. When all of us feel loved, we don’t feel like an injustice has been committed against us. We feel supported. We feel like we belong. We feel at peace in this balance of love. When we have this tension going all over, it’s hard to love each other. When someone does something against you, commits a crime against you, it’s hard to love them. What justice is to me is to restore the balance of love in the community, which requires a lot of work. That is what my focus is in Indigenous justice—to stop seeing justice as punitive and to start seeing it as restoring love to the community.”