The Silent Voices RiseRestoring Hope in Montana’s Indian Country One Unregistered Voter at a time.
By Erica Shelby and Patrick Yawakie
Western Native Voice
westernnativevoice.org If you consider yourself a woke Native from Montana, chances are you’ve probably heard of Western Native Voice, (WNV) a dynamic non-profit organization designed to inspire Native leadership so our communities flourish. One strategy WNV uses to inspire leadership is to engage Native Americans in the democratic process, or as we say on the Flathead reservation, Rez out the Vote. In fact, if you live on any of the seven Tribal Nations, one of the three urban areas that WNV serves, or have ever attended any kind of tribal function, you’ve probably already connected with one of our organizing teams or even used our ‘SkoVoteDen’ hashtag on social media. Historically, Indians are disenfranchised from American politics due to several factors including, genocide, systemic oppression, and inter-generational trauma. More contemporarily, however, the stains of colonization have manifested as low-propensity voting in Indian Country through suppression tactics and apathy. We have now identified disengagement as the missing link in our collective efforts to heal our Indigenous nations, decolonize our families, and revitalize our cultures. Since its inception in 2011, WNV has consistently demonstrated an ability to develop a sustainable and well-oiled non-partisan civic engagement machine. WNV boasts many successes including passage of Montana’s tribal regalia bill (SB 319), swaying elections, and working to mobilize Montana’s 7% (according to the National Congress of American Indians) American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) voting age population. WNV is a powerful representation of traditional resilience, resourcefulness, and innovation. Currently, WNV employs an all-Indian conglomerate of community organizers for the seven reservations as well as Missoula, Billings, and Great Falls. WNV also maintains an all-Native board and an exemplar management team in Leah Berry - Associate Field Director , Marci McLean-Pollock - Executive director, and Alissa Snow - Field Director/Lobbyist.
It’s no secret that Natives are underrepresented in most political arenas and as a modern proverb asserts, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ The trend emerging from recent election results illustrates that during times of lower civic engagement, social ills that plague Indian Country such as youth suicide, drug addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and lack of services and access to quality healthcare increase. When we have consecutive election cycles of increased turnout those same issues are more likely to be contained and addressed at higher rates. Since our problems can only be solved from within, civic engagement is our path to sovereignty and voting is the easiest move we can make to effectively address our issues. This is why the work WNV is doing is critical to our vitality as nations. As Indian people, we face amplified adversities in our daily lives just to survive, and as organizers we have to accept the many dismal realities of the Indian plight. If you have ever canvassed or cold-called and you are aware of the social climate in Indian country, you can probably understand and appreciate how difficult our work can be. We face obstacles every day as community organizers, but it pales in comparison to the daily challenge to put food on the table for our families, keep a roof over our heads, and not become a statistic. Not many people are capable of knocking doors in our communities, prodding and making sure that all of the adults are registered voters and are WNV members, but this work is absolutely necessary. In addition to that we also get contact information, log addresses in our voter database app, build voter target lists and maps, educate and create awareness around the issues facing us, and build relationships not only by our bosses’ directions, but by the requirements of the work itself.
Everyone in our organization has one thing in common and that is our passion and belief in our objective. Voting is not just a component of our pathway to freedom, it is the very first step we have to make to begin our progress. Often times the hopelessness we encounter on reservations, like the act of voting itself, can seem daunting, but in reality our problems are very easy to solve and voting is quite painless. Sometimes we mistake our own apathy as an imaginary ceiling holding us down and we are here to negate these obstacles and clear our roads. These midterm elections are definitive elections of this generation and for Indian Country. They could mean the difference between termination and sustainability. We urge everyone to develop their sense of urgency to register, become educated on the issues and vote smart! The Montana primary election is June 5th and we challenge Indian Country to show up in full force. Please help us make voting our new tradition, when you get up in the morning you wash your face and brush your teeth, after high school you go to college, and when you turn 18 you vote. Patrick Yawakie is A:shiwi & Anishinaabe, a Husband & Father, and a 3rd year student in Tribal Governance and Administration. Patrick has been working Native Get Out The Vote for Western Native Voice since the 2016 primaries. Patrick's main focuses are Tribal Sovereignty, Food Sovereignty, and Communication Sovereignty. Erica Shelby is a member of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribe and a 3rd year Tribal governance & Administration student in the first cohort of the program at Salish Kootenai College. Currently, Erica is an intern for Tribal Council, a community organizer for the Flathead Reservation under Western Native Voice, and a board member for Ksanka Aqlsmaknik, the Kootenai language school. Erica has worked to advocate and engage Indian Country in civic matters since 2011 with an emphasis on language and cultural revitalization, youth empowerment, sustainable economic development, and missing and murdered Indigenous Women.