Guest Speaker Bill Yellowtail Addresses the Future of Native Americans

On Nov. 18, in honor of Native American Heritage Month, Hotchkiss hosted guest speaker Bill Yellowtail in a virtual discussion about contemporary dynamics in Native American communities.

Yellowtail began his address by quoting from Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris’s acceptance speech, when she reflected on the strength and determination of American women who fought for voting rights. 

“We must see what can be unburdened of what has been,” he said.

The adage holds true for Native Americans who view themselves in the rearview mirror, identifying themselves with their tragic past and colonial victimization rather than unburdening themselves from it to create their own destiny, he posited.

“The challenge [for Native Americans] is how to shift from the rearview mirror of our tragedies to a windshield view, toward identifying ourselves by our possibilities,” he said. 

Yellowtail holds a degree in geography from Dartmouth College, and has been a rancher, educator, fishing guide, Montana State Senator, and a Congressional candidate. He was appointed by the Clinton administration to serve as regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with responsibility for six western states and 27 Native American tribes. Yellowtail was honored with an appointment as Katz Professor in Native American Studies at Montana State University, served as Director of Native American Partnerships, and is an honorary alumnus of the College of Letters and Science.

Yellowtail addressed the community via Zoom from his family ranch on the Crow reservation in Montana. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a button-down shirt, he noted that his appearance lacks the stereotypical Native American trappings, including feathers and moccasins. 

It raises the question of who gets to be an Indian these days, said Yellowtail, who is a combination of Crow Indian of Montana as well as Irish, French and English.

He explained that Native American communities use a measure of '”blood quantum,” requiring individuals to prove they are one-fourth Native American to determine whether they are eligible to register as a federally-recognized Native American..

But he added, "In just a few generations, using that measure, we are going to breed ourselves out of existence by virtue of intermarriage." 

“So how do we solve the human imperative to belong; how do we determine who are Native Americans?” Moreover, he asked, how will Native Americans define themselves in the future?

“We need to take charge of our destiny," he said. “It starts with what I call Indian thriving, not just surviving.

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