Story by LaNada Peppers, photos by Sophie Tsairis
The walls of the Lodgepole Senior Citizen Center brandish the heads of various animals posed with semi-interested expressions as though the daily musings of the tribal elders captivated them even in death. Elders from the reservation village of Dodson gather here daily to eat lunch, play bingo and craft beaded jewelry.
In between the soft murmur of voices, Alpha Ironman, 75, talked about voting. Her sharp eyes closed for a moment as she sat, her proud, yet age-softened, visage deep in thought about the subject matter.
“Now we have a few people from our reservation or near who are in Helena so it’s kind of important that we vote,” Ironman said. “I think a lot of people now are realizing that their vote counts. I vote.”
Ironman’s daughter, Marlis Lone Bear, patiently listened as her mother speculated about the national primaries. Lone Bear is short and to the point. She said she always tries to vote but doesn’t know if it makes a difference.
Ironman and her daughter are members of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes residing on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The people here have a great deal at stake during the average election year but especially this year, with national politics seeing a change in the federal administration, which would include heads of the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, both agencies that directly affect Indian Country.
On Fort Belknap however, a laundry list of roadblocks, including an unemployment rate as much as 10 times higher than the rest of the state and a vast rural landscape that could mean hundreds of miles of travel, make voting impossible for some.
County and tribal representatives know this and want to improve voting access, but instead spent much of the spring caught up in bureaucratic negotiations over logistical information. For them, voting is important but the expense involved complicates everything.
Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch
The tribal community in Fort Belknap sits on the Great Plains just north of the Little Rocky Mountains. Remote villages lay miles away from each other and single houses sprinkle the countryside.
Here, long distance traveling is all but essential, whether it be for food, gas or medical treatment—often two or three times farther than non-natives must travel according to a 2016 study that analyzed circumstances surrounding voter denial in Montana’s Indian Country.
According to the study, “An Analysis of Factors that Result in Vote Denial for American Indian Voters Living on Reservations in Montana,” by Moana J. Vercoe and compiled for two Native American voting rights groups, nearly 20 percent or more of American Indians in Fort Belknap have not completed high school. The median family income on Fort Belknap is up to 50 percent less than whites in most counties. Family sizes on Fort Belknap are larger than whites, and a higher percent of these families live in poverty.
Put together, these factors result in the inability of Native American families to make it to the polls due to lack of transportation. Also, people tend to have more fluid addresses because of issues like constant relocation for work and school. Mail ballots don’t work for reservation populations.
In 2014, satellite elections offices were opened on the Crow and Blackfeet nations in Montana after Mark Wandering Medicine and tribal plaintiffs from Blaine, Rosebud, and Big Horn counties filed suit in U.S. District Court in 2012. They alleged that the counties failed to create offices that would allow late registration and in-person absentee voting for Native American communities.
The plaintiffs claimed this violated the Voting Rights Act. Ultimately, both parties settled and both sides claimed victory. However, many believed the settlement didn’t go far enough to secure equal rights for Native American voters. According to the settlement, Bighorn, Blaine, and Rosebud counties would have to provide satellite offices on reservations.
The only binding document resulting from the Wandering Medicine litigation was the settlement agreement, the legality of which is under constant scrutiny since only one plaintiff signed it. The other, a Fort Belknap tribal member, walked out of the courtroom before the judge set the terms of the settlement.
Alternative Voting Offices
Mark Azure, President of the tribal council, is known as the “buffalo president” because of his advocacy for the return of the bison to the Great Plains. Every legislative session, he is aware that he will be among those who argue against the anti-bison bills.
In May, the tribal council and Blaine County officials agreed to work together to satisfy the demands for equal voting access within the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The new resolution follows the terms of the settlement agreement ensuring the spirit of the Wandering Medicine settlement is maintained. The suit was the fruition of individuals who saw the need for change in the current voting system.
According to Sandra Boardman, Blaine County clerk and recorder, the county offered alternative voting offices as a substitute to the satellite election offices, like those being placed on other reservations across Montana.
Boardman said the reason the county must offer alternative sites as opposed to satellite sites are multifaceted. While both offices would offer absentee voting and late voter registration for a month prior to Election Day, the ballots must be issued in sequential order in every precinct per state law. In order to do so, the office must close and reopen or face purchasing two machines to ensure the ballots are issued sequentially, a $44,000 expense. In addition, satellite offices would require three times the personnel, who would also need to be trained.
Dolores Plumage, one of Blaine County’s three commissioners, said the county has had to look at the budget and the economics of change. She said their county has a small reserve and they have to “make that dollar go as far as it can.” The tribes also had concerns throughout the negotiations.
“For too long, whether through our own doing or with the help from the non-Indian, we’ve kind of been left out of the picture,” Fort Belknap Tribal President Mark Azure said.
These types of offices are a new concept not only for Blaine County, but for counties nationwide, as no precedent currently exists. Marci McLean, of Western Native Voice, a social justice organization that works to strengthen Native American communities in Montana with voter registration and community outreach, is confident that as legislation catches up, the model for the satellite and alternative election offices will improve and ultimately aid in equalizing the vote for Native Americans throughout Montana and beyond.
The commissioners agree, guaranteeing that the negotiation between county and the tribes will be a ‘living document,’ which can be altered and changed as legislation changes, and as more is learned about the offices.
“It will change as time goes on,” Plumage said. “It’s an opportunity. It shouldn’t be us versus them. The county doesn’t want to feel like that. I don’t want to put the voters in between. It’s not their fault. It can be done, and after it’s done then it’s going to be up to the political parties to get those voters to the poll.”
Native Vote Matters
Ultimately, both the county officials and the tribal council have said they have the people’s rights at heart. The next step is to ensure that the people will show up to the polls to vote.
The tribes are also working with Western Native Voice to increase voter education campaigns banking on national election years seeing higher voter turnouts on reservations throughout Montana. The goal for the tribe is to meet and maybe even surpass these goals.
“What a better way to exercise your voice than to get out and vote en mass and see change actually happen,” Azure said. “Give us the opportunity to show you that we will show up and register and that we will show up and vote.”
Historically, the people of Fort Belknap have shown up and voted and this has made all the difference according to McLean. In fact, U.S. Senator Jon Tester and Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau credit their success largely to the Native American vote.
“A lot of the times we know that the Native American vote is enough to make up the win numbers for some elections,” McLean said. “There needs to be an education component to educate people on why they should vote. What is the power of their voice and their vote when they cast the ballot? It’s beyond checking that box.”
McLean said informing the people of their options and helping them register can go a long way. Education is crucial, she said. If Native American people as a society aren’t informed, they are not going to vote no matter how many sites are designated.
Blaine County Commissioner Charlie Kulbeck said that education is important but stressed that it starts in the home. He said that parents need to be discuss voting with their children so that they understand the importance of their vote.
“Maybe as the years progress they realize what value voting has and what it can do for their lives to have someone there that represents their ideals,” he said.
The commissioners and Azure all concurred on one thing, however. They agreed that once a representative is elected, their feet need to be held to the fire so they keep in mind the people they stand for when making decisions that could shape the lives of the people on the reservation.
Back in Lodge Pole, just as the lunch rush was dying down, the door opened and the senior center coordinator, Minerva Allen, 73, joined the other elders for lunch.
“There’s the boss!” announced Ironman, as the cook helped Allen to her seat then rushed to grab her a tray of fish sticks and homemade macaroni and cheese.
Once filled in on the topic at hand, Allen joined the conversation happily. She said she has come to understand how candidates on every level can affect her people. She has seen it with her own experiences on and off the reservation over the years. She sat ignoring her full plate of food as she told stories of presidents and bordertown racism, never once blaming the people, but the policies and attitudes of the past.
Now Allen said she thinks that change is coming, and that it’s up to the young voters of the community to carry the burden of transformation and worries. She said unless they learn to inform themselves and vote, the burden may be too heavy to bear.
For Allen and the others caught in the fight for the right to vote, simply having a choice is essential to begin repairing the realities of the disenfranchised. The vote matters to the people of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.