Story by Katie Riordan, photos by Maddie Vincent
It was a first for the tribes. At a community dinner in April, Flathead Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley stood in the shadow of the Mission Mountains in the town of Pablo to offer a rare political endorsement.
“As a body, we haven’t endorsed specific candidates because politically, we need everyone’s help,” Finley said into the microphone, addressing the rapt crowd gathered at an outdoor space in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation. “But today the tribal council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes stepped outside of that and voted to endorse Denise as the next representative for the state of Montana.”
The gathering of roughly 150 people—a blend of tribal members and other local residents—erupted in applause followed by the echoing affirmation of drumming.
Denise Juneau, who had served nearly eight years — the maximum allowed by state law — as the Montana superintendent of public instruction, stepped forward and took the microphone. Daylight dipping behind her, the 49-year-old and descendent of the Blackfeet tribe who grew up in Browning had her sales pitch ready.
Dressed in a pale blue blazer with a pair of sunglasses resting neatly on top of her chin-length hair, Juneau spoke about her track record. This included, she said, working for all Montanans.
She told the crowd about her initiative, Graduation Matters. She said the program led to historic high graduation rates across the state, and cut the Native American dropout rate by a third.
Then, she tailored her message to for the immediate audience. She reminded everyone that her position made her the first Native American woman ever elected to a statewide executive position anywhere in the United States.
“Think of what that means,” she said.
“We get one voice for one million Montanans and that voice should actually reflect the diversity of this state,” Juneau said, drawing on a line she has routinely used to acknowledge Montana’s significant Native American population.
“In this election, with all of your help, I will be the first American Indian woman to serve in Congress, ever,” Juneau said, emphasizing the final word. The crowd erupted in applause.
Juneau, a Democrat, is vying for Montana’s sole House seat against Republican incumbent Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL veteran, who has held the seat since 2014.
Juneau deftly maneuvered through the event in Pablo, emphasizing her need for both a broad electorate throughout the state as well as the more targeted Native American vote, which in Montana has become an increasingly necessary demographic.
Nationally, Native American representation in D.C.’s policy-making positions leaves much to be desired. Out of a 535-member congressional delegation, only two members, just under .4 percent, identify as Native American. This is paltry, if not severely uneven, considering that the U.S. Census reported that Native Americans made up about 2 percent of the country’s population in 2013.
In Montana, where Native Americans are the largest minority group, the representation is much closer to equal.
The state’s 150-member legislature includes eight Native American representatives, about 5.3 percent. This is just under the 6 percent Native American population reported statewide. In fact, the state legislature has a robust, nine-member American Indian caucus, which includes the eight tribal representatives, that has been building momentum for decades.
The American Indian caucus has made Montana the envy of practically every other state in the union with a Native American population, said Mark Trahant, a journalism professor at the University of North Dakota. Trahant has been writing extensively about Native Americans and politics.
“It is exceptional,” Trahant said. “No one else comes close to this kind of parity.”
While other states, including Oklahoma and New Mexico, elect more Native American legislators, they also have larger Native American populations, making it harder to reach parity, or an equal percentage on the legislature as in the population, Trahant said.
Whether this level of parity in Montana is the result of a more politically-inclined Native American voter bloc or a simple anomaly caused by the physically widespread population, candidates, in both local and statewide races, seem more aware than ever the sway of Montana’s Native American vote.
Candidates in elected offices are waking up to the collective power of Native American voters to swing elections in Montana. High-profile figures like Democratic Sen. Jon Tester have credited Native American voters with their election victories. And Juneau said she needs “Indian Country to turn out” for her to win.
Juneau is a candidate with many qualifiers. If elected, Juneau would be the second woman to ever fill the seat. The Harvard graduate is also the first openly gay candidate to run for Congress in the state. Furthermore, she could end an almost 20 year losing streak for Democrats looking to turn the seat blue.
“She’s a viable candidate and she represents all of the issues that we find important,” said Finley, who has served as chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes since 2015. “And more importantly than that, you can trust her word.”
Before 2000, achieving today’s Native American representation numbers in Montana’s legislature would have seemed nearly impossible. That’s the decade when the hard -fought creation of “Indian-majority” voting districts really began to take hold.
These districts, of which there are now six for House seats and three for Senate, were drawn in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. But not without a fight.
In the late 1980s, Native American plaintiffs sued the Big Horn County Board of Commissioners and School Board. The plaintiffs, from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, alleged their votes for Native American candidates running for local offices like the school board and board of commissioners were diluted in county-wide “at-large elections” that overlapped the reservations.
Using the federal Voting Rights Act, which mandates that minority populations like American Indians have a fair opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice, the plaintiffs won and smaller districts were drawn for local elections.
“After the Windy Boy case, the tribes started to pay attention,” said Pat Smith, a lawyer who specializes in Native American affairs and is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine tribe.
Smith said rather than risk more federal lawsuits, policy makers began to examine state legislature districts and consider some where blocs of Native American voters, like those on reservations, could be safeguarded.
Following the 1990 census and the proceeding redistricting process based on the new population number, an initial five House and one Senate Indian-majority districts were created. Another Senate seat was later added.
But the Flathead reservation presented a unique problem for the commission designing the districting maps.
The representation afforded by Montana’s American Indian caucus doesn’t always conveniently provide a tribal voice from each reservation. For example, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have not, in recent memory, had a tribal member elected to the state legislature.
In large part, this is because the Flathead, the state’s westernmost reservation, is a singularity of demographics.
It’s the only reservation in the state where non-tribal members outnumber Native Americans. The 1904 Allotment Act opened up the reservation for homesteading, allowing for non-Native American settlement and tipping the scale toward a non-Indian population. Today, tribal members are outnumbered by more than two-
In order to preserve the Flathead reservation’s Native American vote, the state’s legislative districting commission proposed House District 15, which would span parts of the Blackfeet reservation encompassing Heart Butte and cut down the east side of the Flathead reservation.
The vast expanse of the district made it ripe for critics to suggest it was an overstep. And so the district was twice-challenged in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals throughout the 1990s, Smith said.
“It was the hardest fought district in Montana’s history,” he said.
The court eventually decided that the district boundaries were acceptable, prompting inclusion of House District 15 in Montana’s 2003 redistricting plan and handing a huge victory to Native American voting rights.
As District 15 became a permanent outline on the state’s map, the legislature’s American Indian caucus began to climb. Another Indian-majority Senate district was also added to include House District 15 and House District 16, which sprawls the northern part of the Blackfeet reservation.
For the past 16 years, largely as a result of these Indian-majority districts, Montana’s Indian caucus has fluctuated between five and 10 members.
It has proven crucial as a powerful swing voting bloc, said Joey Jayne, a Democrat and former member of the caucus. She served as a House representative from 2001 to 2008 in one of several voting districts spanning the Flathead reservation that wasn’t originally drawn as an Indian-majority bloc.
“The tribes depended on us,” she said. Jayne is Navajo but has called the Flathead her permanent home after marrying a Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member more than 20 years ago.
In her tenure, Jayne said she and her colleagues worked on bills and appropriations for a wide range of issues that affect Native American communities. This included expanded funding for health care, initiatives to curb racial profiling in law enforcement and a push to incorporate more indigenous history in school curriculums.
“Native American [voices] are essential,” Jayne said about the need for diverse backgrounds in elected offices. “You are going to know their needs. We share like values and life experiences.”
But Jayne also prides herself on her ability to represent a wide variety of constituents, a mantra she, like Juneau, is employing as she looks to re-enter the political arena.
After an eight-year hiatus from politicking in Helena, and a failed Senate bid in 2010, Jayne is once again running for a Senate seat.
Her district, 47, stretches from just south of Polson on the Flathead reservation down to just north of Missoula, encompassing a diverse constituency. In at least one of the two House districts that comprise Senate district 47, there is a 25 percent Native American population, according to a 2013 districting report.
It’s not completely uncharted territory. A large portion of the Senate district includes voters she already served as a House representative.
“I have a history of representing everybody,” Jayne said.
The lawyer and former justice of the peace in Lake County did defy odds with her first victory in 2000. She beat a Republican incumbent in a district that traditionally voted red.
To win her latest election—first a Democratic primary and then a tough battle against a Republican who most recently represented one of the House districts in Senate District 47—Jayne will once again have to build common agendas. She will have to prove she can represent a diverse voting bloc that includes Native American constituents.
“We cannot take for granted that I am Native and live on an Indian reservation that they will vote for me,” she said. “You have to earn their vote.”
Part of earning a vote is often convincing people to vote, Jayne said as her voter registration cards peak out of her purse, swinging loosely from her shoulder. They are a weapon of sorts she carries with her, on hand in case she encounters an unregistered voter.
Across the board she combats voter apathy, but convincing Native American voters that their state representation matters takes some additional finessing.
“Tribal people know who their council people are, but they usually don’t know who their state representative is,” Jayne said. “I don’t mean that as a criticism, that’s just the way it is.”
But it’s something she and James Steele Jr. have worked to convince people otherwise.
Steele Jr., a former tribal council chairman for the Salish and Kootenai tribes, has also run for the state legislature three times, most recently in 2014.
Now the director of student success at Salish Kootenai College, Steele Jr. initially made a state run in 2008 when he saw council members from other reservations also serving in the state legislature.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have long earned a reputation for wielding political prowess in Helena through savvy lobbying efforts and sagacious tribal government leaders. But Steele Jr. draws a distinction between having direct representation at the decision-making table and advocating from the outside.
“You can lobby. You can have someone else speak for you. That’s fine, and we have been able to be successful at that,” he said. “But to me, it’s really important to have that opportunity for a tribal citizen to be able to represent the people of our community in the legislature.”
Steele Jr. lost all of his races in democratic primaries. He isn’t completely surprised. The seat he ran for twice is in the Indian-majority bloc, House District 15. That seat has traditionally gone to someone from the Blackfeet reservation. Historically, Blackfeet have had slight population advantages in the bloc and turned out their voters in higher numbers, Steele Jr. said.
But redistricting lines drawn in 2013 have moved the slight population advantage to the Flathead reservation, Smith said. The lawyer, who specializes in Native American affairs, added this should make the district more competitive.
Regardless of numbers, Steele Jr. said the real battle is convincing his community that their vote matters, especially at the state level.
“These local offices and legislatures often times become the governors, the senators, the presidents,” he said.
Anna Whiting Sorrell knows that her vote is powerful and spends a lot of time thinking about how politicians can earn it.
Whiting Sorrell, a Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member, has spent a significant amount of her career assisting others in elected offices. She served as the Native American outreach coordinator for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid and later as part of former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s transition team when he assumed office in 2005.
Now, as a pivotal election year looms, she is brainstorming ways to build accountability for Native Americans casting their ballots in mainstream elections. In March, Whiting Sorrell headed a forum in Helena, gathering female Native American leaders from across the state. This group created an incipient list of policy issues that Native American communities could use to generate agenda items they can leverage with elected officials soliciting their vote.
“It’s not about winning the election, it’s about what happens in their position, and how do we hold them accountable to the community they represent,” said Whiting Sorrell, who also headed the Montana Department of Health and Human Services from 2008 to 2012.
At the top of Whiting Sorrell’s list of demands of elected officials is the incorporation of more Native Americans into Montana’s government workforce.
“It’s not about Indians doing Indian work,” she said.
As those like Whiting Sorrell look to bring clout to Native American communities through their vote, those like Juneau say they are paying attention.
As part of her state-wide campaign, in late April Juneau launched a tour of Montana’s seven reservations and an event in Great Falls with the landless Little Shell Tribe. The Flathead reservation, where she gathered Finley’s endorsement, was her first stop.
As Juneau shook hands and greeted enthusiasts sporting T-shirts emblazoned with “Team Juneau,” she kept a watchful eye for unregistered voters. Her campaign manager was nearby with a stack of voter registration cards.
“There is power in the Native vote,” Juneau said. And that’s a power, she added, that is still coming to fruition.