HELENA - Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, was forced to apologize Friday on the House floor after referring to an American Indian lawmaker as "chief" and asking if the committee chairman's gavel wielded by Butcher constituted a "war club."
"It was meant as a compliment," Butcher said of his "chief" comment in an apology before the 100-member House of Representatives.
Butcher made the comments Thursday afternoon at a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee, which he chairs. A day later, he promised fellow lawmakers he would conduct future meetings "in a way that upholds the dignity of the House."
Butcher said House Republican leaders summoned him to their offices after Democrats objected, and said he was told to apologize on the House floor on Friday.
In an interview, Butcher said he made the comments before the committee meeting had formally convened. People were milling about the room at the Capitol, making small talk, he said.
Butcher said he has an extra-large gavel and turned to Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, a member of the committee, and asked him if the gavel could be a "war club."
Then, shortly before the meeting was to start, but while Windy Boy was not present, Butcher said the meeting couldn't begin because he was waiting on "Chief Windy Boy."
"There sure as hell wasn't anything negative about (the comment)" Butcher said, adding that he'd always considered Windy Boy one of the "sharpest" American Indian lawmakers in the House.
Butcher said if he intended to say something disparaging about American Indians, "I would have come up with something (worse) than that."
"He's a tribal leader," Butcher said, referring to Windy Boy, who is a Chippewa-Cree Tribal Council member. "I always thought the chief was the main man."
Windy Boy was not in the House Friday, because he was in Rocky Boy attending a tribal council meeting.
Butcher's comments brought sharp rebukes Friday, both from American Indian lawmakers and Republican and Democratic leaders of the House.
House Majority Leader Mike Lange, R-Billings, called the comments "inappropriate" when announcing Butcher's apology.
Rep. Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, an American Indian lawmaker whose district includes Assiniboine and Sioux tribal members on the Fort Peck Reservation, said in a brief speech that she didn't believe "the good people of Montana (wanted) the indigenous people of this state to be used as the butt of bad jokes and inappropriate comments."
In an interview, Campbell said she thought Butcher's comments were careless, but not necessarily malicious. She said she didn't want to "pick a fight" with Butcher, but felt compelled to address racism when it presented itself.
"My guess is the 9,000 people he represents would not like to have these comments spoken on their behalf," Campbell said.
Rep. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, said in an interview that he didn't think Butcher's use of "chief" was complimentary.
"I'm disappointed that in this body people still say things like that," said Augare, a freshman lawmaker serving his third day in the Legislature. Augare said he was pleased that both Democratic and Republican leaders viewed Butcher's remarks as inappropriate.
House Minority Leader John Parker, D-Great Falls, said as soon as he found out about the comments Thursday, he talked to Republican House leaders, who also found Butcher's words unacceptable.
Butcher said he thought the incident may have been overblown and said one of his own children is an enrolled member of Windy Boy's reservation tribes, a girl whom Butcher adopted as an infant.
"It makes this whole thing ironic," he said.
During the last Legislature, Butcher apologized after referring to severely developmentally disabled students as "vegetables" at an education meeting.