‘We face adversity:’ Despite barriers, Native American voters can swing Montana's elections.

Nora Mabie
Great Falls Tribune

Edward Stamper drove 74 miles to vote.

Stamper, a 71-year-old Chippewa Cree man who lives on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, drove 18 miles Oct. 16 from his home in the Bears Paw Mountains to the Box Elder Post Office to get his ballot. From there, he drove 26 miles to the Hill County Courthouse in Havre to submit the ballot. Then, he drove 30 miles back  home.

Stamper is one of many Native Americans in Montana who face challenges when voting.

Indigenous people living on reservations are geographically isolated and often don’t have traditional mailing addresses or equal access to voting resources, like election offices.

A consequence of long-term federal disinvestment, Indigenous communities often experience high levels of poverty, meaning it can be difficult for people to access a vehicle, pay for gas, or take time off work to vote. Often forced to leave their communities to cast a ballot, Native Americans also face discrimination and racism at the polls. Some Native Americans are apathetic toward voting, discouraged by decades of mistreatment from the federal government and a legacy of broken treaties.

The Rocky Boy Indian Reservation is located in the Bears Paw Mountains.

These barriers are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged Indigenous communities. Native Americans account for 25% of Montana's total COVID-19 cases and 36% of deaths from the virus, yet they comprise less than 7% of the state's population, according to an Oct. 2 Department of Public Health and Human Services report

Stamper could have voted at Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. But he didn’t feel comfortable voting in-person, as the Chippewa Cree Tribe, like all tribes in Montana, has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases and reported 111 active cases on the reservation and three hospitalizations on the day Stamper voted.

Stone Child College, a tribal school on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation.

Stamper has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, putting him at greater risk of having a severe reaction to COVID-19. He lost a close friend, Frank Henry, to the virus in August, and one of his grandchildren recently tested positive. Though he’s voted in every election since he was 18, he said if he couldn’t vote by mail this year, he “may not have voted at all.”

To curb the spread of the virus, the Chippewa Cree Tribe enacted a shutdown, barring tribal members from leaving their homes, except on Thursdays and Fridays for supply runs. Stamper expected an influx of people would rush to the tribal college to cast their ballots on their days free from quarantine, so he drove out of town to avoid crowds.

Edward Stamper (right) with his friend Frank Henry (left) on a fishing trip in Alaska a few years ago. Henry died of COVID-19 in August.

Additional satellite election offices near reservations, lawsuits challenging voter suppression in Indian Country and partnerships with organizations, like Western Native Voice, mitigate some of these challenges.

 But the barriers many Indigenous voters face in casting a ballot threaten not only their dignity but the integrity of American democracy. 

Data and misconceptions

Native Americans face significant barriers in voting.

Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship status in the United States until 1924 with the passage of the Snyder Act. But states continued to prevent Indigenous people from voting. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in1965 brought voting rights to Indian Country, and additional language provisions in 1975 helped people who spoke Native languages vote.

Despite a history of disenfranchisement, Native Americans in Montana can determine election results – and they have.

Indigenous people comprise at least 6.7% of Montana’s population of 1 million. There is no official data on Native voters in Montana because voter registration cards do not require people to provide their race or ethnicity.

However, based on elections, census and county data, Alex Street, associate professor of political science at Carroll College, estimates there are between 25,000 and 30,000 Native Americans in Montana who voted in the 2016 and 2018 federal elections. In 2018, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won by 17,913 votes, and in 2016, Gov. Steve Bullock won by 19,818 votes. Both victories are within the margin of the Native vote.

A recent survey of more than 6,000 Indigenous people nationwide conducted by the Native-led nonprofit IllumiNative, Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute and the Native Organizers Alliance found Native voters will “help determine the outcome of 77 presidential electoral votes, a margin that determined the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.”

The same survey revealed 51% of Native Americans identify as Democrats, 7% as Republicans and 26% are Independent and considered swing votes.

Though some may assume Native Americans have little at stake in federal elections, as they have their own tribal governments, experts say issues critical to Indian Country, like tribal sovereignty, violence against women, access to quality health care and land and water rights, are always on the ballot.  

Ta’jin Perez program manager at Western Native Voice said it’s important for Native Americans to vote for candidates who are familiar with Indian Country so policy decisions are “rooted in the realities of what’s going on” in Indigenous communities.

“When decisions are made by others for our communities without our input or consent, those policies invariably leave our communities behind. If we want to create sustainable, long-term change, we have to make sure that people who are in decision-making roles in the legislature, statehouse and county commission are individuals who reflect our communities,” he said.

Mail-in voting: a convenience for some, a barrier in Indigenous communities

Reservation land in Montana intersects 16 counties and spans millions of acres. Because they are geographically isolated, most homes on reservations lack traditional mailing addresses or mail services, making it harder for residents to register to vote and receive and send ballots in the mail.

As a result, many reservation residents rely on P.O. boxes.

More:Pondera County to add electoral office on Blackfeet Reservation

While mail-in elections may be convenient for some, for many Indigenous people, mail-in elections bring new barriers in voting.

But tribal members may have to drive far distances to access P.O. boxes. And because having a box is expensive and tribal members often share a household with multiple families or family members, it’s not uncommon for people to share a box, which can complicate mail delivery.

Big Horn and Glacier counties, which include portions of the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet reservations, have among the lowest vote-by-mail turnout among registered voters so far this year.

About 27% of registered voters in Big Horn County returned their ballots, and nearly 36% of registered voters in Glacier County returned their ballots, as of Monday, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Big Horn County reported 233 active COVID-19 cases and 34 total deaths and Glacier County had 661 active cases and 10 deaths, as of Monday.

“Mail-in voting is a big convenience for a lot of people, but it’s a barrier in Indigenous communities,” said Danielle Vazquez, Montana Women Vote community organizer. “People are staying home, and it’s stressful to leave the reservation and go to the post office. Unfortunately, voting is not a priority because people in these communities are dying" of COVID-19.

Kiela Bird, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, said she worries that fear of COVID-19 will deter Indigenous people from voting.

More:Native American tribes have been hit harder by COVID-19. Here's why.

“(It’s) such a hard time for our people right now. I think a lot of them are worried about getting out and voting during this current climate of the pandemic. It’s affecting almost everyone I know in some way or another,” she said.

As tribes implement stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of COVID-19, some people are unable to access their mail.

Artist John Pepion created this piece, called 'Indigenous Vote,' to encourage participation in the election.

Arielle WolfChief, 29, regional organizer for Western Native Voice, lives on the Rocky Boy Reservation. On Oct. 15, she told the Tribune she completed her ballot but was unable to submit it because leaving her house would be in violation of the tribe's stay-at-home order.

WolfChief said she will bring her ballot to the post office when the quarantine is lifted, but she worries for other community members who may not have their ballots and may not risk leaving their homes to check the mail.

More:Montana law allegedly restricting Native American voting rights struck down

“COVID-19 has really set us back,” she said, adding that she’s been unable to knock on people’s doors or host public events to encourage voting.

Degrees of crisis: poverty and prioritizing voting

Indigenous communities experience disproportionately high levels of poverty, which can make it more challenging for people to prioritize voting over other more immediate needs.

In Big Horn County, which contains portions of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, the poverty rate for Native Americans is nearly 30%, which is about 21/2 times higher than the poverty rate of non-Natives in the county.

In Big Horn County, which contains portions of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, the poverty rate for Native Americans is nearly 30%, which is about 2 1/2 times higher than the poverty rate of non-Natives in the county, according to a 2020 Native American Rights Fund report. In Rosebud County, which contains portions of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, 26% of Native Americas live below the poverty line, compared to 9% of the county’s non-Native population, according to the same report.

“There’s lots of people living in varying degrees of crisis, whether it’s financial, emotional or health-wise,” said Perez. “So there’s a lot of different life circumstances that are often more of a priority to put energy towards addressing. With economic hardships, it can be hard for people to purchase and maintain a vehicle to get to polling locations or county seats and pay for gasoline when they’re more concerned about feeding their family or paying electricity bills.”

‘Intimidating and confusing:’ racism and distrust at the polls

Lance Morris, who lives in Wolf Point, is so frustrated with election politics that he refuses to participate.

Lance Morris, who lives in Wolf Point, is so frustrated with election politics that he refuses to participate.

“I advocate not to join colonial politics since both political parties took part in the policies of extermination of Indigenous people. Neither party has owned up to their part. … Many of us won’t vote,” he explained.

Morris is not alone. As Native Americans experience disenfranchisement, they withdraw from political participation. 

“County election offices are intimidating,” said Vazquez, who is Chippewa Cree. “There’s already a lot of distrust of the federal government and when you go to these election offices, it’s all these white people and all these rules. It’s intimidating and confusing.”

Erica Shelby, Get Out the Vote coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said because of historical assimilation policies and homesteading, non-Natives outnumber Native Americans on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes encourage members to vote.

“What comes with that is the entire elections office is made up of non-Indians. All of the commissioners are non-Indian,” she said in September. “We have people with anxiety about going to the courthouse, and that’s a consequence of the colonization of our people.”

A complaint in a recent lawsuit, Western Native Voice vs. Corey Stapleton, addressed racial tensions on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“Many tribal members do not feel comfortable traveling to majority non-Native areas, given the hostility between members and non-members,” the complaint reads, noting all polling locations are in majority non-Native towns.

According to the recent Native American Rights Fund report, as injustices and racism mount, Indigenous voters “disengage from the political process and become apathetic, firm in the belief that nothing will ever change.”

Perez said he’s seen apathy among Native voters.

“We face adversity,” he said. “When all these indignities are stacked on top of each other, it gets to be too much, and people would rather avoid it.”

Ta'jin Perez, program manager at Western Native Voice

Street, a political science professor at Carroll College, calls this reaction “rational apathy” or “historically-informed apathy.”

“Apathy is realistic if you feel your voice does not get heard. In some senses, it’s logical to think, ‘We are always ignored, so why be optimistic about change in this political system?’ The federal government has betrayed (Native Americans) time after time. It’s a really unequal history and unjust. It makes sense that people would feel apathetic about politics,” he said.

Why vote?

Though they face additional challenges when voting, many Native Americans vote to elect candidates who will work directly with tribal leaders and enact laws critical to Indian Country.

Alissa Snow, Native vote program director for the Montana Democratic Party, said social issues inform her vote.

Alissa Snow, Native vote program director for the Montana Democratic Party, said she votes so her daughters have a better future.

“My No. 1 issue is access to quality and affordable health care,” Snow said. “Then, of course, there’s the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic; these things worry me. I vote to build a better future for my daughters. I don’t want them to worry about the same issues I worry about.”

Perez said Montana has seen “vast improvement” in Native representation in the Legislature, which boasts 12 Indian Caucus members.

More:Montana Indian Caucus urges Daines to vote 'no' on filling Supreme Court vacancy

Shane Morigeau

“One day, I’d like to see a Native governor or secretary of state. We hope this representation inspires young voters. It’s a path for a more equitable future and for a government that reflects who we are, our values and our communities,” he said.  

Democratic candidate for state auditor, Shane Morigeau is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. 

“Having people who grew up in our communities and who understand our issues and are ready to be a voice is how you get change,” Morigeau said. “You elect people who know what you’re dealing with and who can really advocate to strengthen your community.”

To encourage and empower more young people to participate in the election, Shadow Devereaux, a rapper from the Flathead Indian Reservation, joined two other artists, Artie Mendoza, who goes by RezBoi, and Vincent Webster, who goes by Yvng Vin, to create a Get Out the Vote hip-hop video, called “We Can Make a Change.”

The video shows the three rapping, playing basketball and helping people register to vote on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Devereaux, who goes by Foreshadow, has two sons, ages 3 and 11 months. He said he votes for them.

“Don’t you want your family to be good when you die?” he raps in the video. “If you tell me no, I say you living a lie. We can make a difference and it starts with you and I.”

“Voting means a lot. It determines the future my kids will grow up in,” he told the Tribune, adding he hopes his children can live in a world where they feel comfortable embracing culture and tradition. “When I was growing up, it always felt like being Native wasn’t cool. Now, I try to express that being Native is cool.”

For some, like Edward Stamper in Rocky Boy, voting is a ritual. He’s voted in every election since he was 18, a practice he says his parents instilled in him.

Stamper picked up ballots for his six grandchildren and said he’s “trying my hardest” to get them to vote.

He calls them often to ask whether they’ve mailed their ballots. 

"Last time I talked to one, she didn’t fill it out yet. She will be talked to again," he said. 

For information and resources on the Native vote, visit www.westernnativevoice.org.

Nora Mabie covers Indigenous communities for the Great Falls Tribune. She can be reached at nmabie@greatfallstribune.com. Follow her on Facebook @NoraMabieJournalist or on Twitter @NoraMabie

To support coverage of tribes in Montana, subscribe today.