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For Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, her roots growing up on a Montana Indian reservation with well-educated, tolerant parents and enough food to eat profoundly impacted her life. “I deeply appreciate how much privilege I’ve had that has allowed me to become the person that I am, and that I live in a historic time for women,” she says.

It was a day that ends in ‘y,’ so Diane Sands was up early, ready to take on the world and turn it, gently, on its ear.

First surprise:

“I think of myself as an eastern Montana person,” said the Democratic state senator who has called the Missoula Valley home for all but a handful of the past 50 years.

She’s been tackling problems ever since she came to the University of Montana from tiny Frazer in 1965, when she said she promptly joined the anti-war movement.

Early on, Sands was in the forefront of the feminist movement, creating the first Women’s Resource Center on campus in 1968. Racism and social justice issues, abortion rights, gay rights, criminal justice, Indian education – the list keeps going.

She was elected to four terms in the state House of Representatives, the first in 1996 and the last three ending when she termed out in 2012. Though retired, she hopped back into the legislative fray last year, winning a tight race for the Senate District 49 seat over Republican Dick Haines in the general election.

“We’ve got a looming problem out there,” said the 68-year-old Sands, who became Montana’s first openly gay legislator in 1996.

“We don’t have the programs in place, the trained staff, the facilities to be able to provide for an aging population with high percentages of dementia and Alzheimer's. So we’re looking for answers.”

“We” in this case are the members of the Legislature’s Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee, of which Sands was chair when she was in the House of Representatives.

She was talking last Thursday on the campus of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, specifically inside a restored barracks filled with new exhibits from the fort’s days as an alien detention camp in World War II.

There’ll be a first-time screening Wednesday night at the Roxy Theater of a documentary about those days, called “An Alien Place.” Sands will be one of four panelists who’ll speak afterward.

Before and after she retired as development director of the museum, Sands made it her dogged passion (she has a lot of those) to interpret and share the story of that dark era. She secured grants worth a quarter of a million dollars from the National Park Service and other sources to renovate the T-1 Post Headquarters across the street. What was thought to be a building of 1940s vintage turned out to be the original fort chapel and one of the early structures at the Army post that was established in 1877.

Better yet, it was discovered that the second floor of the former U.S. Forest Service building was once the site of “loyalty hearings” for Japanese prisoners in 1942.

Another grant provided the impetus for the documentary, for the restoration work in the barracks under the guidance of museum curator Nicole Webb, and for signs interpreting the fort’s internment camp history that are in the works.

South of the barracks that Sands sat in was the museum’s streetcar barn. In her last of a seven-year tenure at the county museum, Sands oversaw the long-overdue return from restoration of Streetcar No. 50, which served as the Missoula electric streetcar line’s interurban car from 1912 to 1932.

Before she joined the museum, Sands was executive director of the Montana Women’s Lobby, director of two Youth Conservation Corps programs and project director for the Montana Community Foundation. She spent three years in the Office of Public Instruction, working on Indian Education for All, and was interim director of Missoula's Partnership Health Center. 

That's not even mentioning her work as an elections polling place manager, membership on a state advisory council overseeing mental health issues, chairing the UM Rhodes Scholarship Committee, and on.


There’s a connection to all this, and it’s rooted in large part in that Hi-Line town of Frazer on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Sands’ father was principal and a high school science teacher there.

“It has profoundly impacted my life, being a non-native, being white on an Indian reservation, and at some points in grade school being the only white kid in my class,” Sands said.

With her father’s lead, Sands was “very attuned” to native issues and the overt racism that existed on the reservation.

“It helped me understand that I was living in a native culture, for the most part, and that Native Americans value different things, they look at family differently, and that there were huge injustices in that community,” Sands said.

At one point, her father’s contract was not renewed.

“The white school board said, ‘You let Indians into your house.’ ” And one of their daughters married a young Indian man. It was our fault,” Sands said, adding, “They’re still married.”

“We were the only white family I can recall in Frazer where the kids were literally free to come into our house all the time and play cards and all that. One of my sisters is now married to her high school sweetheart, who is an enrolled member at Fort Peck.”

The teachers’ union stood up for her father and Sands has been a strong supporter of unions ever since.

Another surprise: She was very active in the Lutheran Church growing up and at UM.

“The ecumenical movement in the ‘60s was a profound part of my life because of that call to social justice. I headed the campus ministry as a student back in those days,” she said.

At one time, she considered going into the ministry, “only of course to be told that women weren’t really allowed to become ministers," she said. "That message of intolerance has played a huge role in my life as well.”


On June 26, Sands posted a message on Facebook: “Moved to tears this morning by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the right of all citizens to marry the love of their choice," it said. "Amazing affirmation of our Constitution’s promise of equality. The emotion of this is really overwhelming.”

That came in the wake of the Montana court decision last year to permit same-sex marriage. But, surprise again, Sands said she and her longtime partner, Ann Mary Dussault, haven't and probably won't "go through the hoops" of tying the knot.

Dussault has a long political resume herself, as a state legislator and later as a Missoula County commissioner. Sands said they keep the letter they received from the county attorney when Dussault took the latter office in 1991. It agreed, perhaps tongue in cheek, not to deny her the office because of her lesbian relationship and not to charge her with a criminal offense, which Sands said he could have in those days. Then he wished Dussault luck.

Her Law and Justice committee is working on another issue that has Sands jazzed more than perhaps any other. It involves a broad study of sexual assault in Montana.

“We’ll spend the next year working on that, trying to update all the statutes and looking at fundamental issues: What does consent mean? Are we providing adequate funding for services related to sexual assault? What are we doing for treatment for offenders?” she said.

It's a much better process than taking a piecemeal approach in the rush of a 90-day legislative session every other year, she said.

Sands' interest in the issue goes back to her young adulthood, even before the decade she spent running the Montana Women’s Lobby and promoted legislation that made it illegal for husbands to rape their wives.

The 20-member interim committee, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and Senate and House members, has a good vibe to it. She and Chairman Scott Sales, a Republican from Bozeman, work well together, Sands said. Another Republican and former district judge, Nels Swandal, serves, too.

“We just have some excellent members. It’s exactly the right committee. It’s got a great attitude, a great approach to all this,” Sands said.

It helps that Attorney General Tim Fox has their backs.

“I’m very pleased with the work that he has been doing, the leadership he’s shown in developing training systems for prosecutors and investigators for sexual assault, and the leadership he’s taken in saying sexual assault is a major issue that we must address and, if not end, reduce,” Sands said. “I think it’s that kind of leadership by men who are in leadership that will make the difference."

Women have been working on the sexual assault issue for decades and the numbers have not been reduced.

“Until the whole culture begins to address the issue of sexual assault, and men like coaches and attorneys general and priests and others stand up and say this is not OK and deliver that message, particularly to other men, sexual assault will not be anything more than victim services and it doesn’t change," Sands said. "It just doesn’t change.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian