Newspaper headlines around the country inform daily readers about the fast approaching November elections. So what do upcoming, local, state and national elections mean for Native America?
It’s a matter of all or nothing.
The race means nothing if American Indians don’t show up at the polls to vote for a candidate who represents Native interests. The 2012 elections mean everything if Native people get involved and hold candidates accountable for creating policy and passing laws that impact our daily lives.
I’m fortunate to live Montana where American Indian leaders have a huge presence in local and state positions. We helped elect politicians who have put us at the table, not on the menu. So, it makes sense that Montana would become home to Western Native Voice, a newly created, non-partisan organization based in Billings, Mont. Western Native Voice is fully staffed and has paid organizers on every reservation in the state as well as urban areas, including Billings, Havre, Missoula and Great Falls.
I recently visited with Western Native Voice board chairman Janine Pease, a woman who’s had a phenomenal impact on empowering American Indian voters.
Pease, an esteemed educator who has numerous awards and honors, brings hard-won, get-Indians-elected experience to Western Native Voice. As the lead plaintiff in Windy Boy v. Big Horn County, she helped influence the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a racially polarized Montana voting law that kept American Indians from being represented in at-large elections.
“We’re very interested in having a permanent platform to organize and register Native voters,” said Pease. “We’ve had extraordinary organizing in Montana.” She said Western Native Voice ‘s year-round presence goes hand in hand in working with a new generation of engaged Native voters.
Loren Bird Rattler, executive director of Western Native Voice, said the organization works with young people to engage and register voters. It’s an important part of the organization’s mission. At the same time, the Western Native Voice aims to do more than just get Natives out to vote. They need a reason to mark a ballot, which is why the WNV is keen on putting American Indians on the ballot.
He notes nearly a dozen American Indians who have served as senators and representatives in the Montana Legislature – perhaps more than any state in the country. And then there are the statewide elected positions.
In 2008, Native voters and Montanans elected Denise Juneau, an enrolled Hidatsa who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, to lead the state Office of Public Instruction. As state superintendent of education, Juneau is arguably the only American Indian woman elected to a statewide office in the United States.
Juneau noted in a phone conversation that Montana Indian votes helped elect Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer to office in 2004. In turn, American Indians have benefited through unprecedented representation at national and state levels. Tester serves on the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs, an influential committee that studies Native issues and proposes federal legislation in response.
I covered American Indian issues for the mainstream press when Schweitzer was elected in 2004. I can still recall the high energy he brought to Native circles when he cinched the gubernatorial race. One of the first things he did was arrange for tribal flags to be flown outside the Montana Capitol. He also began appointing Indians to lead state departments, boards and commissions.
Four years ago, Schweitzer appointed Anna Sorrel from the Flathead Reservation to lead the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which has 3,100 employees and a biennial budget of $3 billion. Today, two American Indian women, Juneau and Sorrell, control 50 percent of the state budget.
In 2011, Montana voters gave Schweitzer the highest approval rating of any elected official in the state. He’s also enjoyed a long-running wave of national popularity.
While Schweitzer has met term limits, Tester is up for re-election.
Bird Rattler said Native voters benefit when they get involved in the electoral process — as do the candidates. “Native Americans in Montana will decide who the next senator will be,” he said. The Western Native Voice is actively registering Native voters in a state where an estimated 46,000 American Indians are eligible to vote.
“Native Americans will play a critical role in the outcome of this election,” said Bird Rattler, whose team has registered 3,200 new voters since December. “Our efforts here in Montana are being watched statewide and across the country.”
Jodi Rave is an award-winning column writer whose opinions have been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists,-Pacific Northwest, Columbia University, the Native American Journalists Association and the Montana Newspaper Association. She was also awarded a Harvard Nieman Fellowship for journalists in 2003.