Mark Trahant: A lot stake for Native voters in Montana this year

One reason for American Indians success in Montana elections is Western Native Voice, an community-based enterprise that other regions would be smart to emulate.

Montanans have long recognized the importance of the Native vote. Speaking at the National Congress of American Indians in September 1956, U.S. Rep. Lee Metcalf called political participation Native people’s best hope because “Indians are their own best spokesmen, their own best diplomats, but they can only exercise these roles effectively only in proportion to their … combined strength and their concerted voice.”

In other words: The more Native folks who vote, the more power and say we will have over our future.

Montana is an a great example of that promise. And, there is a long list of success stories: The elections of Sen. Jon Tester, Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes, as well as Governors Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock (who’s in office now).

You can even argue that because of that success at the ballot, Montana produced the best relationship between tribes and a state government, in well, possibly forever.

As former Gov. Schweitzer once said, “Indians have played a major role in my Administration from day one. They lead departments, provide sound policy advice, run programs, and work tirelessly on my behalf to stay connected to tribal leaders, members, and communities throughout Montana.”

Former Sen. Carol Juneau recently wrote in Char-Koosta News about the state’s leadership role. “We now have three Indian majority senate districts and six Indian majority house districts in Montana that give Indian country a real voice in the direction of our state,” she said. “We have a much stronger state-tribal relationship being built because of this political power.”

Think about the significance of Native Montanans strength and voice. America Indians make up less than seven percent of the state’s population, but have have a say, even determining election winners.

So that’s how it ought to be. Only it’s not always that way — even in Montana.

Juneau’s recent op-ed was about an initiative, LR 126, a measure to eliminate same-day voter registration. “Montana Indians have to help defeat LR 126. We have achieved so much in expanding the Native vote in our state,” she wrote. “LR 126 will change the law for the worse and limit our right to vote, in turn, limiting our voice and power.”

Another setback for Montana Native Americans is the smaller turnout during off-year elections; a sharp reversal from what occurred with the election of Tester and Juneau. Fewer Native voters were at the polls in 2010 when more Tea Party candidates won office.

This political season began with great hope for Montana. But events have jumbled what could have been. In the Senate race, the Democrat’s nominee, Amanda Curtis, only began her campaign in August and must build name recognition as fast as she creates an organization. That’s tough to do. She and Republican House member, Steve Daines, are competing for the Senate post.

There is also an open seat for the House of Representatives and this seat may be the most interesting under-the-radar race in the country.

Democrat John Lewis recently told The Great Falls Tribune: “Campaigning in Indian Country is a huge priority for me. I believe it could be the difference in the election.”

Lewis, a former state director for former Sen. Max Baucus, says on his campaign web site that he “knows that Congress has specific trust obligations to Indian people, and in Congress he will work closely with them, government-to-government.”

His Republican opponent, Ryan Zinke, a former state senator and Navy SEAL, doesn’t mention Native issues on his web site. He’s said in the past that the federal government ought to get out of the way of tribes. (That, in my day, was a code phrase for termination.)

Zinke blames Obama’s “war on coal” for hurting the Crow Reservation. I always cringe when I read that phrase because the price of coal is in a worldwide decline, dropping from a peak of $142 per ton to about half that. The reason has far more to do with China’s consumption than U.S. policy.

And, Zinke’s on the far right side of issues ranging from repealing the Affordable Care Act to his opposition to abortion rights. (The New York Times reminded readers this week that Zinke once called Hillary Clinton “the Antichrist.”)

While both Daines and Zinke say they are interested in reaching out and supporting Native issues, we should be clear about significant policy differences. Both would repeal the Affordable Care Act and have not presented an alternative for funding the Indian health system. Both argue for more federal budget cuts and Daines supported the federal government’s shutdown showdown over the Affordable Care Act.

So could the Native vote produce another upset in Montana? Perhaps. If Native voters turnout to stop the initiative LR 126, then absolutely. But the vote has to look more like 2012 than 2010 for that to happen.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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