The Missing Native Vote

Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, American Indians still don’t have equal access to the ballot box.

Stephanie Woodard June 10, 2014

Ed 'Buster' Moore, a plaintiff in the voting-rights lawsuit Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, stands before the southern portion of Fort Belknap, near where he lives. (Photo by Terri Long Fox)

It was mid-April, and Mon­tana was gear­ing up for this year’s pri­ma­ry elec­tion. Vot­ing would get under­way in Big Sky Coun­try on May 5, with a month of advance vot­ing by absen­tee bal­lot — by mail or by deliv­er­ing a bal­lot to the coun­ty cour­t­house — lead­ing up to Pri­ma­ry Day on June 3. If peo­ple hadn’t reg­is­tered, they could head to the cour­t­house to sign up.

‘Native people have a very hard time in Montana,’ says Four Directions co-director OJ Semans. ‘Keeping polling places in white communities is a very efficient way to disenfranchise us.’

But for Ed Buster” Moore, who lives on the Fort Belk­nap Indi­an Reser­va­tion in north-cen­tral Mon­tana, it wasn’t so sim­ple. To cast a bal­lot dur­ing the absen­tee-vot­ing peri­od, he would have to make the 126-mile round trip to the Blaine Coun­ty Cour­t­house in Chi­nook. That’s about $21 worth of gas, not to men­tion the income that Moore, an arti­san, would lose by tak­ing a half day off from his work mak­ing hand drums, rawhide bags and oth­er items that he sells in the com­mu­ni­ty and on the Inter­net. A dia­bet­ic, he’d have to buy lunch on the road. Those expens­es add up.

If he had to vote today? I couldn’t afford it,” Moore says. For trib­al mem­bers who are unem­ployed or receiv­ing assis­tance, vot­ing would be impos­si­ble, he says. It’s sheer economics.”

Moore’s sit­u­a­tion isn’t unusu­al. Though mea­sures that cur­tail minori­ties’ vot­ing rights, such as strin­gent ID require­ments and lim­it­ed vot­ing time, have made head­lines in recent years, the chal­lenges Native Amer­i­cans face when they go to the polls have nev­er been on the nation­al radar. In the sec­ond decade of the 21st cen­tu­ry, near­ly 50 years after the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 out­lawed dis­crim­i­na­to­ry vot­ing prac­tices, Amer­i­can Indi­ans are still work­ing to obtain equal vot­ing rights.

Mon­tanans can reg­is­ter to vote dur­ing the month pre­ced­ing elec­tions — but there’s a catch. The cour­t­hous­es where they reg­is­ter are in large­ly white-inhab­it­ed coun­ty seats, not on reser­va­tions. In the nation’s fourth-largest state — at 147,040 square miles, big­ger than Ger­many — that can mean day­long trips for peo­ple like Moore from iso­lat­ed reservations.

And that’s just reg­is­tra­tion. The month-long vot­ing peri­od is sup­posed to make cast­ing a bal­lot eas­i­er, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of Mon­tanans take advan­tage of it. In 2012, 42.5 per­cent of vot­ers either mailed in an absen­tee bal­lot or vot­ed in per­son dur­ing the month lead­ing up to Pri­ma­ry Day, accord­ing to state elec­tion results. In-per­son vot­ing, how­ev­er, is only allowed at those same coun­ty cour­t­hous­es, a long way from reser­va­tions. And vot­ing by mail pos­es its own dif­fi­cul­ties, thanks to unre­li­able postal ser­vice on reser­va­tions. For Native peo­ple, cast­ing a bal­lot in Mon­tana can be a mul­ti-day event.

The dis­tance between reser­va­tions and coun­ty cour­t­hous­es isn’t just an incon­ve­nience; for many Natives, that dis­tance can mean the dif­fer­ence between vot­ing and not vot­ing. Johnathan Walk­er, stu­dent body pres­i­dent of Fort Belknap’s Aani­i­ih Nako­da Col­lege and an avid par­tic­i­pant in get-out-the-vote efforts, recalls one 85-year-old woman who missed her oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote because Walk­er was unable to secure trans­porta­tion for her to the courthouse.

To mea­sure the impact of these hur­dles, a 2014 report by Jean Schroedel, a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Uni­ver­si­ty, exam­ined vot­ing meth­ods used in the 2012 gen­er­al elec­tion in three Mon­tana coun­ties that over­lap reser­va­tions. In Blaine Coun­ty, she found, 46 per­cent of vot­ers in white precincts cast absen­tee bal­lots. Mean­while, just 18 per­cent did so in Indi­an precincts. The pro­por­tions were sim­i­lar else­where in the state.

None of this adds up to equal rights, accord­ing to for­mer Fort Belk­nap trib­al pres­i­dent and cul­tur­al leader William Snuffy” Main. Indi­ans have one day to vote, assum­ing they’ve reg­is­tered ahead of time, and every­one else has a month,” says Main, a board mem­ber of the Native vot­ing-rights non­prof­it Four Direc­tions. As Mark Azure, Fort Belknap’s cur­rent trib­al pres­i­dent, puts it, I would love to walk out the door, cross the street, cast my vote and get back to my life — and not have to take half a day and go off the reser­va­tion to a town where I know that … I’m not real­ly welcome.”

He may soon be able to do just that, thanks to a fed­er­al law­suit led by Mark Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine, a North­ern Cheyenne spir­i­tu­al leader and Viet­nam vet­er­an who would have to trav­el 180 miles round trip to get to a coun­ty cour­t­house. The case, Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine v. McCul­loch, pits plain­tiffs from three Mon­tana reser­va­tions — Fort Belk­nap, North­ern Cheyenne and Crow — against coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials and the sec­re­tary of state and top elec­tions offi­cer, Lin­da McCul­loch. The plain­tiffs demand equal access on their reser­va­tions to the absen­tee vot­ing and late reg­is­tra­tion cur­rent­ly offered only in coun­ty courthouses.

At press time, in late May, the oppo­nents in the suit were set to appear in a fed­er­al court­room near the site of the Bat­tle of Lit­tle Bighorn with­in days of the battle’s 138th late-June anniver­sary. The loca­tion and tim­ing are apt, as the law­suit is shap­ing up to be a sequel to that famous encounter, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. The plain­tiffs include descen­dants of the leg­endary Plains tribes that won the 1876 engage­ment — the Sioux, Cheyenne, Ara­pa­ho, Black­feet and Gros Ven­tres. With sup­port from region­al and nation­al orga­ni­za­tions, the cause has gone well beyond Mon­tana. New Native allies from Alas­ka to Ari­zona have joined our fight,” says Four Direc­tions co-direc­tor OJ Semans, a Rose­bud Sioux from South Dako­ta. Even Lt. Colonel Custer has a proxy for Lit­tle Bighorn II: Geral­dine Custer, an elec­tion offi­cial named in the law­suit, is mar­ried to a Custer descendant.

This time, how­ev­er, the Native peo­ple have the Unit­ed States on their side: Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine has attract­ed the inter­est of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, which views the suit as an impor­tant test of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 and has tak­en it up as part of its efforts to ensure equal rights nation­wide. (For exam­ple, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is also chal­leng­ing Texas’ 2011 vot­er-ID law and North Carolina’s increased vot­er-ID require­ments and short­ened vot­ing peri­od.) The DOJ has filed an ami­cus brief and two State­ments of Inter­est on behalf of the Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine plain­tiffs, and sent an attor­ney to argue in a 2013 hearing.

One of the defen­dants’ cen­tral claims in briefs and in court has been that because Mon­tana Natives have par­tic­i­pat­ed to some degree in the elec­toral process and have elect­ed some rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their choice, they have all the rights the law guar­an­tees. But the DOJ dis­putes this, argu­ing that the Vot­ing Rights Act does not require minor­i­ty vot­ers to prove they lack all elec­toral oppor­tu­ni­ty. If the state and coun­ty defen­dants pre­vail, warns the DOJ, juris­dic­tions would have a green light to dis­crim­i­nate” and could, for exam­ple, keep polling places open for 12 hours in white precincts but only three hours else­where. That sim­ply can­not be the law,” the DOJ wrote in its April State­ment of Interest.

On the oth­er hand, a rul­ing for the Native plain­tiffs would mean equal­i­ty for Native vot­ers — and pos­si­bly for oth­er iso­lat­ed minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties, such as Lati­nos in the South­west. Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine has the poten­tial to trans­form minor­i­ty vot­ing access,” says Semans.

Leap­ing vot­ing hurdles

Fort Belk­nap sits north of the Lit­tle Rocky Moun­tains, where pines and aspens climb the mile-high, 15-mile-wide range and an old wag­on road winds along the base of the crag­gy slopes. Buf­fa­lo and hors­es graze in hilly grass­lands; oth­er areas are giv­en over to cat­tle and hay.

The reser­va­tion is about the size of Rhode Island and is home to two tribes: the Gros Ven­tre (pro­nounced grow-vont), who call them­selves the A’aninin, and the Assini­boine, also known as the Nako­da. About half of the 7,000 enrolled trib­al mem­bers live on the reser­va­tion. Most live in mod­est, ranch-style homes, some clus­tered togeth­er, oth­ers scat­tered across the 1,200 square miles of rolling plains. Those who have found employ­ment most­ly work for the trib­al gov­ern­ment, the Indi­an Health Ser­vice, the Bureau of Indi­an Affairs and Fort Belknap’s Aani­i­ih Nako­da College.

To deter­mine how dis­tance and pover­ty affect Native vot­ing access, the DOJ asked Uni­ver­si­ty of Wyoming geog­ra­phy pro­fes­sor Ger­ald R. Web­ster to exam­ine the three Mon­tana reser­va­tions involved in Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine. Web­ster found that Indi­ans on those reser­va­tions trav­eled two to three times far­ther than whites to get to a coun­ty cour­t­house. Mean­while, depend­ing on the reser­va­tion, Indi­ans were two to three times more like­ly not to have a vehi­cle for the trip. They were also less like­ly to have mon­ey to fill the gas tank: In Blaine Coun­ty, which over­laps Fort Belk­nap, Web­ster found that the Native pover­ty rate was 2.5 times that of whites; in Rose­bud Coun­ty, which over­laps the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion, Natives were four times more like­ly than whites to live below the pover­ty line.

Fear also keeps Natives away from white towns and their cour­t­hous­es, estab­lish­ing an apartheid con­di­tion in Amer­i­can Indi­an com­mu­ni­ties. They are today the poor­est, most iso­lat­ed and in some quar­ters, the most racial­ly cas­ti­gat­ed pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try,” writes soci­ol­o­gist Garth Massey, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Wyoming emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor who sub­mit­ted an expert report to the court on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Natives have plen­ty of rea­son to fear ven­tur­ing out­side their com­mu­ni­ties. In 2000 and 2007, the U.S. Civ­il Rights Com­mis­sion (USCRC) issued reports on the hate crimes, mur­ders and fatal police shoot­ings that Natives face in towns near reser­va­tions in states such as Mon­tana, South Dako­ta and New Mexico.

South Dako­ta, home to Lako­ta and Dako­ta tribes, has scores of grue­some mur­ders, many unsolved, involv­ing Indi­an vic­tims. The USCRC and the FBI have decades of files describ­ing mur­dered Indi­ans found aban­doned by road­sides, float­ing in rivers and, in one noto­ri­ous case, stuffed in a garbage can. In recent years, things have improved in South Dako­ta,” says Semans, a for­mer crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tor for tribes, the Bureau of Indi­an Affairs, and oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies. Indi­ans may still be mur­dered with impuni­ty in some cas­es, but the police no longer feel free to sim­ply open fire on us.” Not so in Mon­tana, where Semans has encoun­tered sto­ries he finds cred­i­ble of police harass­ment and bru­tal­i­ty, and fatal police shoot­ings. Native peo­ple have a very hard time in Mon­tana,” he says. Keep­ing polling places in white com­mu­ni­ties is a very effi­cient way to dis­en­fran­chise us.”

Full polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion has been a long time com­ing for Amer­i­can Indi­ans. Nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry pol­i­cy veered between killing and civ­i­liz­ing” Indi­ans, writes Daniel McCool, polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah and author of Native Vote: Amer­i­can Indi­ans, the Vot­ing Rights Act, and the Right to Vote. State laws offered enfran­chise­ment to Indi­ans who could show they’d done such things as renounc­ing trib­al ties, and own­ing white” clothes and houses.

In 1924, Con­gress declared Native peo­ple to be U.S. cit­i­zens, and thus enti­tled to vote, but they still had to over­come state laws and court deci­sions that blocked suf­frage, says McCool. Even pas­sage of the Vot­ing Rights Act in 1965 didn’t ensure that Amer­i­can Indi­ans could vote. They faced — and in some cas­es, still face — ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts, lack of lan­guage assis­tance for those not flu­ent in Eng­lish, reg­is­tra­tion bar­ri­ers and harass­ment at the polls. Native peo­ple are still in the courts, suing for access that the VRA and Four­teenth Amend­ment guar­an­tee­ing equal pro­tec­tion say they should already have,” says Four Direc­tions legal direc­tor Greg Lem­brich, an attor­ney in New York City.

To over­come the hur­dles of dis­tance, pover­ty, racism and a painful his­to­ry, in mid-2012 sev­er­al Mon­tana tribes asked state and coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials for one satel­lite office on each of their reser­va­tions dur­ing the month pri­or to fed­er­al elec­tions. Four Direc­tions assist­ed with nego­ti­a­tions. But the coun­ties were adamant that they didn’t have the time or resources to pro­vide the offices. In 2012, Geral­dine Custer told inves­tiga­tive news site 100Re​porters​.com, I don’t care if they’re white, black or Chi­nese; I just don’t have the staff. It’s not about race. I’m just swamped.”

With no solu­tion in sight, Four Direc­tions helped trib­al lead­ers from three reser­va­tions to iden­ti­fy plain­tiffs, includ­ing Moore, and file a fed­er­al law­suit. The first hear­ing, in Octo­ber 2012, was for an emer­gency injunc­tion to set up offices pri­or to the fall elec­tion. After U.S. Dis­trict Judge Richard Cebull dis­missed the request, the plain­tiffs appealed.

At the time, Cebull was under fire for send­ing an email malign­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s moth­er. Cebull then resigned. In Octo­ber 2013, the Ninth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals vacat­ed Cebull’s opin­ion in the Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine law­suit and sent the case back to Mon­tana for a do-over. (In Jan­u­ary 2014, a judi­cial over­sight pan­el revealed that Cebull had sent hun­dreds of racist, sex­ist and homo­pho­bic emails, includ­ing some dis­parag­ing Native Americans.)

The change of judges has giv­en Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine new hope. In Feb­ru­ary, he watched a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing before the new U.S. Dis­trict judge, Don­ald Mol­loy, and told Indi­an Coun­try Today Media Net­work that the suit is final­ly being heard by some­one who wants to stick to the facts and the law.”

The Sen­ate at stake?

If Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine suc­ceeds in giv­ing Natives in Mon­tana equal access to the polls, the impact could res­onate far beyond the state bor­ders. As of late May, a New York Times analy­sis sug­gest­ed that Repub­li­cans had about a 40 per­cent chance of gain­ing the six seats they need to take con­trol of the Sen­ate. Three seats seen as poten­tial Repub­li­can pick-ups are in Mon­tana, Alas­ka and South Dako­ta, which have large Native minori­ties (8, 19 and 10 per­cent, respec­tive­ly) that lean, some­times heav­i­ly, Demo­c­ra­t­ic. In oth­er words, the Native vote just might deter­mine con­trol of the Senate.

There are no nation­wide Native par­ty-reg­is­tra­tion fig­ures, so under­stand­ing the par­ty split among Native vot­ers is best done by look­ing at areas that are almost entire­ly Amer­i­can Indi­an, says Four Direc­tions con­sul­tant Bret Healy. He points to South Dakota’s Shan­non Coun­ty, which is near­ly con­tigu­ous with the Pine Ridge Indi­an Reser­va­tion. In 2012, accord­ing to state fig­ures, 5,930 res­i­dents were reg­is­tered as Democ­rats and 583 as Republicans.

Accord­ing to Tom Rodgers, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., polit­i­cal strate­gist and mem­ber of the Black­feet, a Mon­tana tribe, the non-Native pop­u­la­tion in that state is divid­ed between the two major par­ties, at about 45 per­cent each. In between are the Indi­ans,” says Rodgers, who notes that they vote over­whelm­ing­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic. In 2012, the Oba­ma-Biden tick­et received more than 90 per­cent of the vote in two Fort Belk­nap precincts and five Black­feet precincts.

Among the states with large Native pop­u­la­tions, the tight­est Sen­ate race is in Alas­ka, where the Times analy­sis placed even odds on incum­bent Sen. Mark Begich, a Demo­c­rat, hold­ing on to his seat. In Mon­tana and South Dako­ta, the lat­est polls show the Repub­li­can can­di­dates ahead by dou­ble dig­its. But with five months left before the gen­er­al elec­tion, noth­ing is cer­tain. Healy notes that the race is shift­ing in South Dako­ta, where the gen­er­al elec­tion will like­ly pit Demo­c­rat Rick Wei­land against not only a Repub­li­can chal­lenger, but also two for­mer Repub­li­can office-hold­ers run­ning as Inde­pen­dents. The poten­tial for a split con­ser­v­a­tive vote com­bined with high Native turnout could give Wei­land a shot, says Healy.

Mean­while, in Mon­tana, where Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Sen. John Walsh is fac­ing a chal­lenge from U.S. Rep. Steve Daines ®, Democ­rats are pulling out the stops to court the Native vote, includ­ing ener­getic cam­paign­ing on reser­va­tions. And Walsh is co-spon­sor­ing the Native Vot­ing Rights Act, which Alaska’s Begich intro­duced in the Sen­ate on May 22.

Could Amer­i­can Indi­ans turn the tide for Walsh? Maybe, says Rodgers. But we have to have access. By that, I mean satel­lite vot­ing offices on the reser­va­tions, and turnout in large numbers.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Amer­i­can Indi­ans decid­ed a nation­al elec­tion, Lem­brich notes. The Native vote has been cred­it­ed with ush­er­ing Montana’s oth­er sen­a­tor, Demo­c­rat Jon Tester, to vic­to­ry in 2006 and 2012. In South Dako­ta, Demo­c­rat Tim John­son held on to his U.S. Sen­ate seat in 2002 by just 500-some bal­lots after earn­ing 92 per­cent of the rough­ly 3,000 bal­lots cast on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors with deci­sive trib­al back­ing include Begich, Wash­ing­ton state’s Maria Cantwell, and Hei­di Heitkamp of North Dako­ta. In the 2002 Ari­zona governor’s race, Nava­jo turnout helped Demo­c­rat Janet Napoli­tano eke out a 12,000-vote mar­gin of vic­to­ry. With­out the Native Amer­i­can vote, I wouldn’t be stand­ing here today,” Napoli­tano told the 2004 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Convention.

We’ve proven that if we get out to vote, we can make a dif­fer­ence,” says Azure. If can­di­dates ignore the reser­va­tions? They may not get in,” he says.

Dems gone missing

While some Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats are work­ing to expand Native vot­ing— Begich’s Native Vot­ing Rights Act has five co-spon­sors, includ­ing Montana’s embat­tled Walsh — the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is curi­ous­ly absent from the sup­port team for the Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine plain­tiffs. In fact, the lead defen­dant and sev­er­al coun­ty offi­cials named in the suit are Democ­rats. Semans accus­es Democ­rats of trad­ing on decades-old accom­plish­ments and alliances instead of address­ing con­tem­po­rary rights issues. This year in par­tic­u­lar, he says, par­ty mem­bers have basked in the reflect­ed glo­ry of the upcom­ing 50th anniver­sary of the Civ­il Rights Act. They’re rid­ing the coat­tails of tru­ly great lead­ers such as Dr. King, while ignor­ing today’s Native call for civ­il rights,” he says.

About the nation­al party’s posi­tion on the Mon­tana law­suit, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Committee’s vot­er pro­tec­tion direc­tor Pratt Wiley says the DNC backs the Mon­tana reser­va­tion satel­lite offices in the­o­ry, but believes tech­ni­cal” chal­lenges pre­vent set­ting them up. The par­ty seems to be coun­sel­ing patience. The heart of the ques­tion in Mon­tana from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic per­spec­tive [is] how do we get to where we all want to be. It has to do with those tech­ni­cal ques­tions: Who has the author­i­ty to do it, and who will write the check?” he says. Still, Wiley says, the Amer­i­can Indi­ans are a core con­stituen­cy” of the party.

As a mat­ter of rec­og­nized con­sti­tu­tion­al law, tech­ni­cal­i­ties” don’t over­ride equal rights, says civ­il rights attor­ney Laugh­lin McDon­ald, direc­tor emer­i­tus of the ACLU’s Vot­ing Rights Project and author of Amer­i­can Indi­ans and the Fight for Equal Vot­ing Rights. Admin­is­tra­tive incon­ve­nience can­not jus­ti­fy prac­tices that bur­den the fun­da­men­tal right to vote,” he says.

What would Mar­tin Luther King do? About Native vot­ing? He sure as hell wouldn’t dither about tech­ni­cal­i­ties,” says Four Direc­tions con­sul­tant Healy, a for­mer head of the South Dako­ta Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Read Dr. King’s Let­ter from Birm­ing­ham Jail’ on the sub­ject of wait­ing for rights.” In the 1963 let­ter, King decries the man who pater­nal­is­ti­cal­ly believes he can set the timetable for anoth­er man’s freedom.”

But hey, Democ­rats! How about win­ning elec­tions? Con­trol­ling the Sen­ate? Doesn’t the par­ty want all those Native Democ­rats at the polls? Wiley says the DNC doesn’t see it that way. We don’t look at [expand­ing the vote] as mak­ing sure that more Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers vote. We don’t look at it as a pro­gram to make sure more African-Amer­i­can or Lati­no or Native vot­ers can vote. It’s [about] mak­ing sure every­one can vote.”

Healy spec­u­lates that the DNC is reluc­tant to break ranks with par­ty mem­bers who are among the Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine defen­dants or with lead defen­dant McCulloch’s attor­ney, Jorge Quin­tana, who is on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee. Rodgers adds that local elect­ed offi­cials of either par­ty don’t want to rile con­stituents in areas sur­round­ing reser­va­tions. If Indi­ans vot­ed in large num­bers, the bal­ance of pow­er would shift local­ly, says Rodgers, and non-Native peo­ple would no longer set the polit­i­cal agen­da. Trib­al mem­bers would be at the table when deci­sions are made — about water rights, rur­al trans­porta­tion, ener­gy devel­op­ment, health­care for the high pro­por­tion of trib­al mem­bers who are vet­er­ans, and much more.

Per­haps the DNC believes it can count on Native vot­ers with­out tak­ing sides in Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine. This may be hubris, warns for­mer Mon­tana Demo­c­ra­t­ic state leg­is­la­tor Mar­garett Camp­bell. Orig­i­nal­ly from Fort Peck Indi­an Reser­va­tion and now a Fort Belk­nap school super­in­ten­dent, Camp­bell has fought for Indi­an rights for decades. She sus­pects that con­fi­dence in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty may wane among trib­al mem­bers, who may then stay home in 2014. You can’t take a huge seg­ment of your vot­ing pop­u­la­tion and treat them like that with­out them feel­ing dis­en­fran­chised,” she says.

Aani­i­ih Nako­da Col­lege stu­dent body pres­i­dent Walk­er agrees, say­ing the tim­ing of this cri­sis of con­fi­dence is ter­ri­ble. He explains that the sequester and gov­ern­ment shut­down bad­ly affect­ed Indi­an coun­try, since delay­ing and can­cel­ing gov­ern­ment con­tracts put trib­al mem­bers out of work. As a result, Amer­i­can Indi­ans see vot­ing and hav­ing a polit­i­cal voice as not just impor­tant, but crit­i­cal. At the same time, they feel the par­ty they’ve sup­port­ed so enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly isn’t lis­ten­ing. It’s dis­heart­en­ing,” says Walker.

Democ­rats should nev­er take Amer­i­can Indi­an votes for grant­ed, says Native Vote author McCool. He describes Native Amer­i­cans as acute­ly aware” and issue-spe­cif­ic” vot­ers, who have sup­port­ed Repub­li­cans, includ­ing John McCain. Montana’s Repub­li­can Sen­ate can­di­date under­stands this. In his bid to unseat Walsh, Daines has hired a trib­al liai­son and filed bills and held hear­ings on issues that inter­est tribes.

Find­ing solutions

William Main stands over­look­ing a warm spring in a deep val­ley just north of the Lit­tle Rocky Moun­tains. The frogs have dis­ap­peared,” he says. So have the fire­flies and a sil­ver-striped min­now.” The like­ly cul­prit is a cyanide heap-leach gold mine that the fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments allowed to open in 1979 on one of the range’s peaks, Spir­it Moun­tain, over the objec­tions of many trib­al mem­bers. The sacred site, where trib­al mem­bers have long sought visions and col­lect­ed heal­ing plants, is gone, too. All that remains is an immense yel­low scar on the hori­zon, where orange, yel­low and blue-grey streams car­ry­ing lead, arsenic and oth­er heavy met­als bleed down bat­tered slopes into the reservation’s rivers and creeks. For years, trib­al mem­bers have called for robust stud­ies on the effect of the mine’s tox­ins on human and envi­ron­men­tal health.

Accord­ing to Main, bet­ter vot­ing access would encour­age elect­ed offi­cials to help launch such stud­ies and to respond to tribes’ myr­i­ad oth­er prob­lems as well: high unem­ploy­ment, extreme pover­ty, sub­stance abuse, a chron­i­cal­ly under­fund­ed health­care sys­tem, and crum­bling schools, pub­lic build­ings and homes.

Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine is not the only recent law­suit that takes aim at the numer­ous obsta­cles Native peo­ple face in secur­ing equal rights. In April, Vot­ing Rights Project direc­tor emer­i­tus McDon­ald and Mon­tana ACLU attor­neys nego­ti­at­ed a redis­trict­ing set­tle­ment that pro­vides Fort Peck trib­al mem­bers with equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion on a local school board. That suit, Jack­son v. Board of Trustees of Wolf Point School Dis­trict, is one of many since the 1960s that have restruc­tured dis­tricts that mar­gin­al­ized the Indi­an vote. The Nava­jo Nation is cur­rent­ly advanc­ing just such a suit, which claims that elec­tion dis­tricts in Utah’s San Juan Coun­ty, which the reser­va­tion over­laps, are designed so Nava­jo votes have less weight than those of non-Navajos.

In Alas­ka Native set­tle­ments, lack of lan­guage assis­tance is a major vot­ing obsta­cle, accord­ing to Las Vegas attor­ney James Tuck­er. In Toyukuk v. Tread­well, Tuck­er argues that Yup’ik speak­ers in parts of south­west­ern Alas­ka haven’t received lan­guage assis­tance man­dat­ed by the Vot­ing Rights Act for those who aren’t Eng­lish-pro­fi­cient. As a result, some Alas­ka Native vot­ers strug­gle with lists of can­di­dates, text of ref­er­en­da, and instruc­tions for sign­ing, fold­ing and oth­er manip­u­la­tions of the bal­lot that must be done cor­rect­ly for the vote to count, says Tuck­er. He calls vot­ing under such cir­cum­stances a Hail Mary play.”

In South Dako­ta, Pine Ridge Indi­an Reser­va­tion vot­ers set­tled Brooks v. Gant last year, giv­ing them absen­tee-vot­ing satel­lite offices through 2018. Four Direc­tions helped frame the law­suit, based on its expe­ri­ence set­ting up offices in past elec­tions. The non­prof­it then secured a com­mit­ment from South Dako­ta to use Help Amer­i­ca Vote Act funds for offices on more reservations.

Main says these strug­gles and vic­to­ries will bring Native peo­ple into our nation’s polit­i­cal life. There will be more Native elect­ed offi­cials and a greater involve­ment for us in our tra­di­tion­al lands, which, tak­en alto­geth­er for the U.S. tribes, encom­pass the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca,” Main says. We have fought for this coun­try, and now we want to be part of tak­ing bet­ter care of it.”

Semans agrees. Peo­ple are always telling us we have to improve our social and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions,” he says. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the elec­toral process is how we’ll do it.”

UPDATE: On June 10, Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine v. McCul­loch was set­tled out of court. Mon­tana Sec­re­tary of State Lin­da McCul­loch and elec­tions offi­cials of three coun­ties that over­lap Indi­an reser­va­tions agreed to open polling places on reser­va­tions for two days a week dur­ing the month-long pre-elec­tion peri­od when Mon­tana allows absen­tee vot­ing and late reg­is­tra­tion. The defen­dants will also pay the Indi­an plain­tiffs $100,000 for their legal costs in the near­ly two-year battle.

Plain­tiffs’ attor­ney Alex Rate points out that the set­tle­ment clar­i­fies that Sec­tion 2 of the Vot­ing Rights Act, which pro­hibits elec­tion dis­crim­i­na­tion, applies to Natives. As a result, say Barb and OJ Semans of Four Direc­tions, the Native vot­ing-rights group that orga­nized the law­suit, more tribes in Mon­tana and else­where will be able to seek equal­i­ty. Says coun­ty defen­dants’ attor­ney Sara Franken­stein, The three coun­ties are look­ing for­ward to work­ing with their respec­tive Tribes.”

Tex Hall, chair­man of the Coali­tion of Large Tribes and for­mer head of the Nation­al Con­gress of Amer­i­can Indi­ans, praised the set­tle­ment, call­ing it a good day” for Indi­an country.

This sto­ry was report­ed with the sup­port of the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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