Diane Sands was born March 23, 1947 in St. Ignatius, Montana. Her family was among the few white families on a Native reservation, and both her parents were teachers. Diane attended reservation schools growing up, and she was very cognizant of the socioeconomic and education disparities between white and Indian students. She even witnessed her father getting in trouble with the school district for allowing Indian children into their home. Diane was never afraid to speak out about social issues. For instance, she got in trouble for vocally challenging her high school teacher when he said that “girls just aren’t as smart as boys.”
Unfazed, Diane went on to attend the University of Montana in Missoula. When she arrived in 1965, she stepped right into a standing vigil protesting the Vietnam war. During college, Diane got involved in the anti-war movement, civil rights movement, women’s movement, and the push for the starting of the Black Studies program. She found her base in the women’s separatist movement, but was always aware of the overlaps in the issues she was working on. She helped start initiatives all over the school including a women’s center, a referral service to help women get legal out of state abortions, the rape crisis program, and helping create the first Women’s Studies courses.
After college, she turned her attention to academic theory, studying Women’s Studies at George Washington University for graduate school with a focus on oral histories. Returning to Montana in the late 1970s, Diane earned a $10k grant for the Montana Women’s History Project to do an oral history project on the illegal abortion community in Montana. The project is ongoing and has pushed her to work on abortion issues in legislation.
Through a series of community organizing initiatives, Diane pushed for change in a variety of social issues. She participated in the Montana Lesbian Coalition and helped organize several women’s music festivals in the Montana mountains. Eventually her focus turned to politics: In 1993, she helped run a campaign in Idaho to fight the right-wing initiatives to ban books and materials mentioning homosexuality in schools and libraries. She helped repeal Montana’s Deviant Sexual Conduct Act in 1997 by working with the Montana Human Rights Network to prove that the law violated Montana’s right to privacy, as promised in the state constitution. Diane also has helped create bills to rename sites and remove the S word (“squaw”), changing 86 site names in 10 years, to remove derogatory language towards Native people. She also has expanded an “Indian education for all” federal education program so that every Montanan would learn about Native people’s history in the state.
Diane navigated a controversy in the Democratic Party when she got married to Ann Mary, who had been a Montana legislator and held various elected positions. Diane was a known lobbyist, and both of them faced challenges being an out lesbian couple while also both being public figures and political leaders.
Diane wraps up her interview with advice for the upcoming generation of activists. She talks about politics as a spiritual practice, and emphasizes the importance of pushing our families, lawmakers, and communities to respectfully navigate conversations around difficult topics, to maintain an intersectional lens, and to be cognizant of the many social issues that require decades-long work to come.