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Margarett Campbell Brings Deep Experience To Leadership Of MSU-Northern’s Native Programs

Much of what she learned in her early years formed the beliefs Dr. Margarett Campbell has carried with her throughout a long career in education, ranching and social work.

She reflected on the values she learned from her parents in an interview at her office at Montana State University-Northern, where she is director of American Indian Education.

Campbell was raised on a ranch in a remote part of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. She learned patriotism from her father, Buddy Campbell, a survivor of the Bataan Death March in World War II. His brother and sister also served during the war.

His family knew nothing about Buddy’s whereabouts for years after he was captured in the Philippines and taken to more than a dozen prisoner of war camps.

When he returned home, Buddy suffered from bouts of post-traumatic stress syndrome for years when Campbell was young. From her dad, she learned about hard work, patriotism and respect for the veterans who fought for this country.

From her parents, she learned her love of rodeo. Once school was out each spring, the family went on the rodeo circuit and stayed there until the day her mother returned to teaching each fall.

Her mother imparted her love of learning, which shaped Campbell’s career.

One thing she clearly did not get from her parents, though, was politics.

“My parents were conservative Republicans,” she laughed. “From the time I was 12 or 13, I knew I was a liberal and believed in social justice.”

“I remember reading Life and Time magazines,” she said. 

A love of rural life, Native traditions, education and social justice drove Campbell ever since.

“We grew up eating bologna sandwiches,” she said. “But we had love. That’s what was important.”

Today she is back at Northern, a place she has loved ever since her undergraduate days. For her, it was coming full circle.

Today, her office is not far from the chancellor, who she advises on Indian issues. Her desk is surrounded by Native memorabilia, especially from her own Assiniboine Tribe.

Margarett Campbell (Teresa Getten, Herald photo)

She advises students and helps staff make the school better prepared to meet the needs of Native students.

Several years ago, Northern applied for and received a federal grant to create the Little River Institute for Native students.

Little River is the Blackfeet name for what would later be called the Milk River. In Northern’s service area, the Hi-Line, are four Native reservations. The Milk River flows through or by each.

The federal grant was available for colleges where 10 percent or more of the student body identified as Natives. A map of the United States shows how few schools meet that requirement. Most of the other schools are in Alaska, Minnesota or the southwest United States. 

When the Little River staff was formed, slightly more than 12 percent of Northern students identified as Native. Many started school, but dropped out as time went by.

The figures show a dramatic improvement, Campbell said. The Indian retention rate at Northern is higher than any group at any Montana University System school.  Figures for the 2019-20 school year won’t be available until next week, she said, but they estimate that today 18 percent of the student population is Native. 

Along the way, Campbell was a founder and director of Fort Belknap College, now Aaniiih Nakoda College. She got the school off the ground. Not yet accredited, it was under the umbrella of Confederated Salish and Kootenai College. 

Then she was named vice president of Fort Peck College, in charge of a variety of community programs, including those that advanced the cause of agriculture.

“And I wasn’t getting any younger,” she laughed, “so I decided to get my doctoral degree.”

So she began making frequent 550-mile, one-way trips to Missoula to complete her dissertation at the University of Montana.

Around that time, she realized that Montana state government could help out in a whole variety of programs that she favored. She began searching for a candidate to run for a House seat in District 31, the Fort Peck area and surrounding ranch lands.

She searched for a woman who was a believer in education, justice and a supporter of agriculture. She talked to about 50 people in hopes of finding a candidate. One day before the deadline, unable to find a candidate, she filed herself.

She began a vigorous campaign in the odd-shaped district that was 4 miles deep in some areas and 60 miles wide. She campaigned in all parts of the district, and to her later dismay, in areas that she later learned were outside the boundaries of the district.

After winning by a 2-1 margin, Campbell approached her Republican opponents and agreed to work together on things on which they agreed. The bipartisan approach would be beneficial later in her career.

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In her first two terms, she was deputy minority whip for the Democrats. 

When Campbell was re-elected a second time, she was tapped by the Democrats to be majority leader, though her party was only nominally in the majority. The House was split 50-50, but under the Montana Constitution, in case of a tie in the House, the party that controls the governor’s office is designated as the majority party. Still, she needed help from Republicans to get anything passed.

She was then named superintendent of the tiny Brockton school district, precluding her for seeking a fourth term in office.

But after one year at Brockton, the beleaguered Hays-Lodge Pole school district, on her home reservation, reached out to her. The school was in turmoil. For a time, there was no principal and no superintendent because of the disarray. 

The district was named a “School of Promise,” making it eligible for federal assistance to lift up its sagging performance levels.

She brought stability to Hays-Lodge Pole, but admits it wasn’t easy.

“I wouldn’t say my time at Hays-Lodge Pole was smooth,” Campbell said, summing up her tenure at the troubled district.

A stickler for rules she insisted that students meet strict attendance regulations. If they didn’t, parents were called in to explain themselves. 

“That’s not always popular in small communities,” she said. “You end up calling in some relatives of school board members.”

From Hays-Lodge Pole, she heard that Northern was looking to expand its services to Native students. Campbell longed to get back to her alma mater and promptly applied.


Margarett Campbell is a great person to spread the news about Northern.

She said it was a place she always felt welcome.

“We have some great programs,” she said. “This is a four-year institution, but we have other programs too.”

Native students are urged to take part in the Sweetgrass Society and other Native organizations, she said. Now she’s delighted that they are becoming involved in other campus groups. For instance, several Native students are active in the Student Senate and the academic clubs on campus.

There are changes in the program she would like to see.

For instance, there is an “Indian waiver,” meaning Native students don’t have to pay full tuition. Northern loses that money, she said.  The waivers are required by Montana law, but the state doesn’t reimburse the lost funds. They make Northern shoulder the burden. She’d like to see the state subsidize the program.

But for all her educational, social and political success, Campbell is most proud of her daughters.

All four have graduated from college, are raising families and have become professional women.

They are:

  • Vernal Chase, a graduate of Miles City Community College, works for Flintco, a nationwide construction company. She has been involved in the construction of major building projects throughout the United States.
  • Reyna Monteau followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a teacher and is now principal of Hays-Lodge Pole High School.
  • Jennifer Cole is a former Great Falls Tribune reporter and has since become a rural development expert with the United States Department of Agriculture.

Campbell is having fun and feeling fulfilled in her work at Northern.

There is one major concern, however.

The federal funds that run the Little River Institute are in doubt. President Donald Trump’s budget called for elimination of programs like the Little River Institute. The House of Representatives put the money back in the budget, so there is a stalemate.

The present budget expires June 30, and the program’s future is uncertain.

If the money is not forthcoming, the only option will be to fold the Little River Institute expenses into the overall Northern budget.

But Northern is already fiscally strapped, she said, and can’t afford it.

Email John Kelleher at (406) 262-7778
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