In Montana, Indians are Guilty Until Proven Innocent

First in a three-part investigation.

Hays, Montana.

James Main, Sr., Gros-Ventre and longtime advocate of Indian rights, said some conditions have improved for American Indians in Montana, particularly the treatment of Indians by government officials. Ranchers in north-central Montana often get along well with Indian cowboys.

However, the treatment of Indians by the Montana Justice System has not improved its treatment of Indian people.

“We’ve got a long way to go with the Justice system. I’d like to see a handful of radical attorneys come over here and shake this place up, attack the system,” Main said.

Main, known internationally as a voice for Indigenous Peoples, now in poor health following open-heart surgery, has a personal view of the state system.

James’ son James Main, Jr., 46, was charged with murder in the November 25, 2006, death of a Caucasian male at a home in the bordertown of Havre, located between two Indian Nations, the Fort Belknap Gros-Ventre and Assiniboine Nation and the Rocky Boy Chippewa Cree Nation.

Havre Police arrested Jim Jr., 46, after Lloyd Charles Kvelstad of Minot, North Dakota, was found dead at a Havre home on Nov. 25, where multiple people had gathered.

At the time of Jim Jr.’s arrest, the family questioned why a man who fled the scene with blood on his shoes was not arrested. The victim had been strangled with a cord allegedly from the clothing of the man who fled.

Then, in July, two people were arrested in Great Falls and charged with felonies related to Kvelstad’s death. Twenty-eight-year-old Kim Norquay and 38-year-old Mellissa Snow were arrested on warrants.

Court records say that Norquay helped beat and strangle Kvelstad. Authorities say that a string from Norquay’s clothing was found tied around the victim’s neck.

Norquay is charged with murder by accountability and evidence tampering, both felonies, and with misdemeanor obstructing a peace officer. Snow is charged with felony evidence tampering and misdemeanor obstructing a peace officer.

Court records allege Main beat Kvelstad at Snow’s house in Havre. Court documents also allege that Norquay told investigators he left the house and returned to find Kvelstad dead. However, the state crime lab later found blood on his shoes. Snow is accused of tampering with evidence by wiping up blood at the crime scene.

Both Main’s defense attorney and the Hill County prosecutor’s office declined comment.

Bill Means, Lakota and cofounder of the International Indian Treaty Council, is concerned.

“Indians in Montana are considered guilty until proven innocent,” Means said.

Jim Jr., incarcerated in the Hill County Detention Facility in Havre since his arrest on November 25, 2006, faces 10 to 100 years in prison. At the time of the crime, Jim Jr. was living at Fort Belknap and taking care of his elderly mother.

After the arrest of Jim Jr., his sister Rose, questioned why the state’s star witness was not arrested at the time.

“The State has focused on Jim, and despite contradicting evidence, has charged no one else,” Rose said before the July arrests. She said testimony supporting Jim has been ignored by prosecutors.

Jim Jr. and the family have received words of support from throughout the nation.

Researcher Orin Hatton of Springfield, Virginia, was helping Jim Jr. prepare a manuscript for publication. It is an autobiography, rich with the history and culture of his people, including his great-grandfather, Chief Lame Bull, the last traditional chief of the Gros-Ventre people.

Hatton told the court that he has known Jim for 15 years.

“I have never known him to raise his voice in anger or utter a curse word. My experience of James is of someone who possesses a strong intellectual curiosity, a memory for facts and figures, and ability to synthesize large amounts of data. And like his grandfather, he is dedicated to a higher purpose in life–which includes preserving the culture, history and traditions of the Gros-Ventre people of Fort Belknap, Montana.”

Hatton described Jim Jr. as a cultural ambassador who has traveled to France as co-author of a screenplay on the Gros-Ventre People, participated in an Indian dance troupe in Greece and endeared himself to the Kumeyaay in southern California, where he worked as a youth counselor and organized a youth drum group. Jim Jr. took a leave of absence to write his autobiography while staying with the Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut.

“He would be in California today working with Native youth programs if he didn’t feel strongly about caring for his mother after her surgery for a life-threatening condition. His father’s health too is failing and James has remained in Montana to be near his parents,”

Hatton told the court.

James Sr., in his home community of Hays on Fort Belknap Indian Nation, said his son’s best quality is his ability to make friends.

Describing his son’s best attributes, James Sr. said, “It is the way he talks to people. Kids really like him; he had a drum group in California. He was a good mixer, many people really liked him; he was good have around.”

James Sr. laughs remembering how Bill Means said Jim Jr. should be a comedian because of his impersonations of John Wayne and others. Jim Jr. was the caregiver of his mother, Vernie White Cow Main, who lives on the homesite where she was born on Big Warm Creek on the Fort Belknap Nation.

James Sr. said, “Jim took care of her. He almost had to be a nurse for six months. He trained himself to take care of her.”

James Sr. spent his life traveling for Indigenous rights, helping those who needed him. “I decided to do some good,” he said of his decision to live a life in service to humankind.

“I learned a lot about different people and different cultures. I never knew there were other Indians in California. I thought John Wayne got them all,” James Sr. joked.

“It’s good to travel, travel around.”

Seated at home in the community of his childhood at Hays, James Sr. is surrounded by memories and the passing of time.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to last. I have got a lot of people praying for me. These Mayan Indians went up on a pyramid in Guatemala.

It must have been a very powerful ceremony. I knew; it was in my mind.”

On his living room wall, there is a huge poster of a Gros Ventre man. It reads, “Sits on High, EK-GIB-TSA-ATSKE, of the White Clay People A’AH’NI NIN.”

James Sr. looks at the poster and says, “He did what they wanted him to do, settle down. Then, they took his land.”

Speaking about those who took the land here, rich in gold, water and forests, he says, “They make a fortune and they die.”

These days, James Sr. teaches his grandsons the philosophy that he has lived by. It is the philosophy of pride, self-esteem and honoring the culture.

“Go back to your old ways, traditions and culture. That is what I teach my grandsons. Try to get the language back,” he adds. There are only a handful of speakers left.

James Sr. remembers the harsh years at St. Paul’s Mission School.

During second grade, when the children went to pray during Christmas mass, the nuns told them Santa Claus would come if they had been good.

If not, there would be willow switches waiting. When they returned, they expected presents and instead found a stack of willow switches. There was also writing on the blackboard.

“I recognized the writing. It was a priest’s, telling us how bad we were.”

The little children were often beaten. James Sr. remembers, “They would slap us around for nothing.”

Remembering his father Tom Main, James Sr. said, “He was a humanitarian, a real leader. He did things for nothing. He could have amassed a fortune, but he didn’t.”

James Sr. said Tom Main served as an interpreter at a time when few White Clay People spoke English. Tom served on the executive committee of the National Congress of American Indians.

“I learned a lot from him, he was honest to a fault,” Jim Sr. said of his father.

“We had a pretty rough upbringing, we were poor and we had to haul water a long way. We burned wood, so we had to saw wood. My mother used to wash on Saturdays, all we did all day long was haul water.”

James Sr. grew up with three brothers and four sisters. Today, all of his brothers are living and the oldest is 86. He served in the Air Force in Japan and was there when the Korean War began in 1950.

James Sr. also worked in the copper mines for 15 years. “That’s where there was never racism, a melting pot.”

The happiest days of his life were spent during his high school years. “We rode horseback, we rode bucking horses; there were lots of wild horses. We had powwows during the holidays, I really enjoyed those. We had bone games, hand games, we would sing songs and have a guessing game. We tried to guess whose hand the bone was in.”

The men and women played each other. Kumeyaay have similar games, he said. During their travels, both Jim Sr. and Jim Jr. earned the respect of Indian people.

Lenny Foster, Navajo program supervisor for the Navajo Nation Corrections Project, is the spiritual adviser for 2,000 Native Americans incarcerated in state and federal prisons. Foster facilitates Sweat Lodge Ceremonies, Talking Circles, Pipe Ceremonies and spiritual gatherings for inmates.

Foster is among those who has written the court and visited Jim Jr. in the Havre jail.

Foster told the court, “I have been acquainted with the Main family for over 30 years and I have known Jim Jr. for just as long. I know him to be a very generous and kind person who practices his traditional beliefs. He is a stable and very caring person who has close ties to his family, especially his father and mother. His mother and father are both elderly and Jim has been a primary caretaker of his parents.

“Jim has traditional cultural beliefs about reverence and sanctity towards life. The charge he is facing is out of character for him,” Foster told the 12 the Judicial District Court in Lewistown, Montana.

BRENDA NORRELL is human rights editor for U.N. OBSERVER & International Report. She also runs the Censored website. She can be reached at:

This article originally appeared in the print issue of Navajo Times.