Secretaries get lessons in rural reality

Billings Gazette

Two members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet got a taste of rural and Native American culture this week. Their visit to Billings, Busby and Lame Deer showed the secretaries things that they wouldn't see on their urban home turf.

A tepee outside the public school building. Northern Cheyenne dancers swirling in beautifully beaded, fringed dresses. A town 41 miles from the nearest hospital. An elementary school that's celebrating 100 years of educating children but with no help in sight to upgrade to 2009 facility standards.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, a New Yorker, visited a Busby couple whose home is one of the first that HUD built on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 1965. They look forward to the first renovation of their home, a project made possible by a new HUD grant the tribe recently secured. Donovan also saw a senior-citizen housing complex where renovations are under way, thanks new HUD funding.

When U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked a Lame Deer High School freshman what's needed to get more students to graduate, the Junior ROTC member didn't ask for more money, teachers or computers. Instead, he said: "We need to have somebody come in and say every day 'You can make it.' "

Small wonder Duncan would say repeatedly later in the day that he met "smart students."

Introducing Duncan and Donovan at a news conference at Montana State University Billings later in the day, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said it had been 10 years since the last previous visits of an education or HUD secretary to Montana.

Duncan acknowledged that Wednesday marked his first visit to an Indian reservation. And he spoke with enthusiasm about the students and educators he met in Montana, saying the state "has a chance of leading the country where we need to go."

Sporting an obsidian arrowhead bolo, Donovan said his visit was an eye-opener. He said Tester first asked him to visit Montana during the Senate confirmation hearing on his HUD nomination.

"We are here to make sure there is decent, affordable housing available to all Montanans, especially in Indian Country," Donovan said.

When Donovan and Duncan are back in Washington, D.C., making decisions that affect housing and education across America, they should remember what they saw in Montana – in Lame Deer, Busby, Crow Agency, Hardin, Billings and the miles of open country in between.

Tester succinctly summed up the significance of having two Cabinet members visit our state, even for a day: "It's a great opportunity to talk to the secretaries about the challenges we face here in Montana, so that when they go back and start implementing the policy that we pass in Congress, it's implemented in a way that works for rural America."