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‘Your life depends on it’: Federal elections could diminish tribal sovereignty
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‘Your life depends on it’: Federal elections could diminish tribal sovereignty

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BILLINGS — “Tribes are sovereign, so why vote?”

It’s a common refrain across Indian Country, where tribal council elections — not federal elections — dominate.

Chad BadBear, a student at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, said he doesn’t know who’s running in the federal elections this year.

Students and faculty at Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy Reservation talk about the upcoming November midterms, voter engagement on the reservation and how state elections are perceived throughout their community.

“I want to know how it works,” he said. “But it’s all so complicated.”

Kiara Small, a student at Stone Child College in Rocky Boy, said, “I don’t pay attention to government.”

When asked why his peers aren’t politically active, Austin Valencia, a 26-year-old student at Stone Child, hit the nail on the head.

“It’s more or less a sovereign nation kind of thing,” he said. “That’s why I believe most of us don’t really try to look at state things. … It’s because we live on the reservation, where it’s a whole different thing.”

While tribes have self-governing authority, local, state and federal governments have tremendous influence on Indian Country. They affect tribal economies, infrastructure, education and health care. And various levels of government can — and have — attacked and eroded tribal sovereignty in the past.

Tribal leaders, political analysts and organizers in Montana say Native voter participation has been low this year, and if Indigenous voters don’t turn out, their tribal sovereignty could be at stake.

Shane Morigeau

State Sen. Shane Morigeau is a Democrat from Missoula.

“Some people just think tribes are getting handouts left and right,” said Shane Morigeau, a member of Montana’s American Indian Caucus who is running for reelection. “The problem is all of these federal programs are notoriously underfunded. … If you’re not represented (in government), you’re going to be left out.”

While tribes have a special relationship with the federal government and interact with local governments, many people don’t see how the dots connect. In close-knit tribal communities, it can be obvious how the tribal council influences one’s day-to-day life, especially when members on the council are your relatives.

But when it comes to state and federal politics, many people living on reservations say they don’t know who represents them or why it matters. It can be bewildering to follow the connections from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on how the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and state governments divvy up law enforcement jurisdictions, down to whom a tribal police officer can make an arrest on a reservation boundary. 

Experts say the problem is structural, as the connection between state and federal policy and Indian Country has not been well communicated.

Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director of Western Native Voice, said people living on rural reservations, where internet access is limited, may not be able to find information about policy.

Ta’jin Perez, deputy director for Western Native Voice, called the problem multifaceted.

Western Native Voice

Western Native Voice Executive Director Ronnie Jo Horse is photographed at the Western Native Voice office in west Billings on Thursday, Oct. 27.

“The education on civics and the education on government (in small-town America) is not robust,” he said. “And individuals are living in varying levels of crises, personal and community crises, where there’s other things that take precedence over being involved in policy-making. And then, of course, there’s the mistrust of the government, and that is completely understandable.”

Western Native Voice and Red Medicine are the only two groups in Montana that specifically work to educate and engage Indigenous voters, and Perez said that’s part of the problem.

Western Native Voice

Western Native Voice Deputy Director Ta'jin Perez is photographed outside the Western Native Voice office in west Billings on Thursday, Oct. 27.

“It shouldn’t be up to non-governmental organizations like ours,” Perez said. “It should be something that the education system prioritizes.”

County influence

Reservations in Montana overlap with 16 counties. In Tuesday’s election, county positions such as commissioner, sheriff, coroner, attorney and school superintendent will be on the ballot.

“The government may seem a long way from Indian people, but it’s very close actually,” said Janine Pease, former president of Little Big Horn College with decades of experience fighting for Native American voting rights. “All of the services in counties are some of the most basic human services that are provided across the U.S. Things like garbage disposal, water services, water systems. The county runs nursing homes and hospitals. The county runs welfare systems.” 

Janine Pease mugshot

Dr. Janine Pease, Billings, higher education administrator and scholar; advocate for Native American rights and languages.

Tribal governments do not have the funds to provide these kinds of services, although their members are entitled to them by state and federal law. Many other social services, including SNAP and TANF benefits, are run by counties.

While tribes are sovereign, tribal members are also U.S. citizens.

“As citizens, we have the right to any of these services that citizens across the U.S. do,” Pease said. “Citizens should want all the services that are rightfully theirs.”

For Pease, the relationship between county leadership and tribes is personal. She’s seen firsthand the consequences when county leadership excludes Native people from vital services. In 1986, she was the lead plaintiff in Windy Boy v. Big Horn County, which was the first court case in the nation that went to trial and resulted in a redrawing of school board and county commission district lines.

In the case, plaintiffs brought forward evidence of discrimination in Big Horn County. Pease called the evidence “hair-raising.”

Arlee voting-03.jpg

Christine McDonald, an election official at an Arlee satellite polling location in the town's senior center, sorts out "Future Voter" stickers for kids who come with their parents to vote. McDonald said the stickers encourage kids to become future voters and be engaged with the upcoming election.

The case demonstrated that poll workers were chosen by race, and there had never been a Crow poll worker in Big Horn County, which was 46% Native at the time. The county did not allow the use of Crow language in polling places and did not provide assistance to Crow speakers. Restrooms in the courthouse were for whites only, while Natives used a bathroom in the basement. The sheriff’s office and ambulances had code words for Native victims, and the ambulances picked up white victims first. A dozen Indigenous deaths were ruled accidental by the county coroner, when the victims died of asphyxiation or were beaten. There were few if any Native teachers, and one physical education teacher in the county was found to have never given a Native student a grade higher than a C. At the time, Big Horn County had 205 employees, five of whom were Native and none Crow. Pease said county snowplows would plow out white ranchers' roads and plow in those of Native people.

“We had the testimony of an Indian woman whose husband actually died in her car because she couldn’t get across the big heap of snow,” Pease said. “It was terrible stuff. Just terrible.”

Pease said she had no idea the discrimination in Big Horn County was so rampant at that time.

“Indian people are so used to it,” she said. “Whole generations were raised up in these conditions, and they didn’t even call it discrimination. They said, ‘That’s just how it is.’”

Thanks to Windy Boy v. Big Horn County and several other lawsuits, Montana has a number of majority Native Senate, House, county and school board districts, meaning more Native people have been elected to positions of power.

In Big Horn County, for example, County Commissioner George Real Bird, Attorney Jay Harris and Sheriff Pete Big Hair are Native. In 2019, 10 of the 13 elected officers in the county were Indigenous.

“Democracy is not something that you can go to sleep on,” Pease said. “You have to be active. If Indian people weren’t active on their own behalf, no one else would care. Really.”

State power

All state policy affects all Montanans, but some policy disproportionately affects Native Americans.

The state Legislature makes decisions on water rights, hunting rights, bison, health, education, jobs, taxation, transit, and funding for grants that support Native businesses, among other things. The Legislature also gets delegated to manage federal services. For example, Congress gives individual states the ability to opt in for Medicaid expansion.

Perez said Medicaid expansion has created positive health outcomes for Native people, especially those living in urban areas.

Arlee voting-02.jpg

A mother and her children exit an Arlee satellite voting office at the Ronan Indian Senior Center on Nov. 4. The satellite office will return to the center on Nov. 5, and the CSKT Tribal Complex, Hot Springs Indian Senior Center and Dixon Community Center on Nov. 7.

“It’s one example of how state policies, policymakers and who we elect to represent our communities in the Legislatures can have a real, direct effect to something like health,” he said.

Public school funding goes through the Legislature.

“Native kids go to public schools across Montana,” Morigeau said. “Who appropriates that money? The Legislature. So what happens when it’s monetized for religious and private schools? It takes away opportunities from others in Montana.”

Margarett Campbell, who served in the state Legislature from 2005 to 2011, said education decisions made on the state level also affect students on reservations. Campbell said Native students who go to a tribal college often go on to attend a state university.


Margaret Gutierrez, acting deputy chief of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, announces an Internet for All grant award that will increase internet accessibility for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Blackfeet Nation, at the tribal headquarters in Pablo on Oct. 11. The tribes will receive $74.8 million in funding for high-speed internet infrastructure projects. 

In Montana, Campbell explained, the state has an Indian Tuition Waiver to support Native students attending state universities. Campbell remembers testifying in the '70s to secure the fee waiver, but now she said she sees it being scrutinized again at the state level.

“I don’t understand why you would want fewer Natives to go to school,” she said. “I just don’t understand that. When a Native student goes to college, if they return home, they almost immediately impact the socioeconomic status of that reservation on their homeland.”

Clarena Brockie served in the state Legislature from 2013 to 2015. In 2012, she won by the thinnest of margins.


Clarena Brockie, a former state legislator and decades long vote organizer from Fort Belknap, poses for a portrait outside the Aaniiih Nakoda College in Harlem on Sept. 21. Brockie, 73, said the Native vote has largely contributed to the victory of candidates when former Congressman Pat Williams won in 1978. Now she's worried about the ongoing dwindling of voting engagement around the reservation.

“I got in by three votes, and I made a difference,” she said. “I was able to get bills passed for Native Americans on scholarships and fee waivers.”

Brockie is proud of her work on the Indian Tuition Waiver. At the time, she said, for a Native student to receive a fee waiver they had to be at least one-quarter Native American. But, at the time the Fort Belknap Indian Community considered a person to be a member if they were at least one-eighth Native American.  

“I didn’t think that was right,” Brockie said. “The tribes should decide enrollment. That is their sovereign right.”

The policy was ultimately changed so that any member of a federally or state recognized tribe in Montana could qualify for the fee waiver.

Discrimination in the Legislature

While members of Montana’s American Indian Caucus have made strides in state government, many say state lawmakers often propose bills that threaten tribal sovereignty.

In the 2021 Legislative session, House Bill 302 was signed into law, requiring county commissioners to authorize bison relocations within their jurisdictions. Another law, House Bill 318, revised the definition of bison. While the two laws included exceptions for tribes, Native leaders said HB 302 infringed on tribes’ rights to transfer bison and HB 318 infringed on meaningful tribal history with bison.

Additionally, last session, members of the American Indian Caucus argued that new election laws would disenfranchise Native voters, as they limited same-day voter registration and blocked paid ballot collection.

While those laws have since been struck down in court, members of the caucus say they’re part of a concerning pattern.

Ever since former President Donald Trump was elected, members of the American Indian Caucus say the state Legislature is less concerned with Montanans and has instead become a vessel for the national political agenda. Without the backstop of a Democratic governor and with the threat of a Republican super-majority, Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said these kinds of laws are a threat now more than ever.

“The national agenda is the disenfranchisement of the common voter,” said Stewart Peregoy, who is running for reelection. “It’s unfortunate because each state has different issues and different populations. That’s why you’re seeing distrust and frustration from people.”

The American Indian Caucus, which is composed primarily of Democratic lawmakers, is a minority within a minority in the Republican-dominated Montana Legislature.

Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena, D-Lame Deer, said the caucus “got beat up pretty bad” last session.

“They tried to snuff out almost every bill that was presented that would benefit Native Americans,” she said.

Montana's American Indian Caucus

Reps. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, and Rynalea Whiteman Pena, D-Lame Deer, meet in Billings at the Northern Hotel for a luncheon on Wednesday, Oct. 26. The women are members of Montana’s American Indian Caucus. Both are running for reelection this year.

Whiteman Pena said that most state funding that benefits tribes is “one-time only.”

“Why is that when other issues are open and have continuous funding?” she said. “We have to fight every session for the same dollars.”

Last session, Indigenous lawmakers fought back after others proposed a $500,000 budget cut to the state’s language preservation program, citing a lack of outcomes and a “slight amount of apparent interest among tribal members.”

Whiteman Pena and Stewart Peregoy said in the Legislature ignorance, stereotypes and racism are rampant.

“We’re losing the tradition of decorum,” Stewart Peregoy said. “That decorum in both houses has been fractured.”

Whiteman Pena said chairs wouldn’t recognize American Indian Caucus members when they stood up to speak last session. And Stewart Peregoy said lawmakers last session “threw all of the stereotypes about Indians in our face.”

Arlee voting-01.jpg

Dustin Shelby, 43, of Arlee votes early at a satellite polling station at the Arlee senior center on Nov. 4. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes partnered with the county to organize this and other satellite polling locations throughout the Flathead Reservation ahead of the November midterms.

She said Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, incorrectly stated on the floor that Native Americans don’t pay taxes.

In a redistricting meeting last August, the Daily Montanan reported that Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said it wasn’t “fair” that Indigenous people are “overrepresented” in the Legislature. Last session was the first time the American Indian Caucus achieved parity in the Legislature, meaning their representation in the House and Senate mirrored their representation in the state population.

And the Havre Daily News reported this summer that former state Sen. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, said most lawmakers from reservations always vote for welfare and are not smart.

“The reservation doesn’t always send their best and brightest,” he was quoted.

Perez said the lack of interest in and respect for Native communities is “rooted in white supremacy culture.”

“When we grow up in America, we don’t know anything about Indigenous people,” he said. “There’s a lack of Native representation across the board. Whatever there is, it’s most often inaccurate, and at worst, it’s racist. … Costumes and mascots may seem small and trivial to the dominant culture, but when you’re fighting to be humanized again after centuries of genocide, those small things matter.”

Federal influence

The federal government, which has a special relationship with tribes, dictates how states are run.

Congress allocates funding for tribal communities for things like broadband and Indian Health Service investments. It establishes protections for wildlife and water quality. The U.S. Senate confirmed President Joe Biden’s nomination of Deb Haaland for Interior secretary, allowing her to become the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and American Rescue Plan Act, both of which included monumental investments in tribal communities. Federal funding, for example, brought a new wellness center equipped with gyms, therapy pools and preventive care specialists to the Fort Peck Reservation.

Federal funding can also fall short. The Fiscal Year President’s Budget, for example, proposed a $9.3 billion allocation for Indian Health Services, but a recent report revealed the federal agency would need $49.9 billion to be adequately funded.

The federal government also structures jurisdiction and interprets tribal sovereignty.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled in favor of allowing state law enforcement to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes against Native people on reservation land. Experts and tribal leaders said the decision set a dangerous precedent as it undermined a tribe’s right to self-governance.  

“(The case) concerns tribes’ ability to regulate issues in their territory,” Morigeau said. “Whether it’s someone who commits harm on members of your tribe or harm on your resources, that’s one reason to care about what Congress looks like. Who you vote for matters.”

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on Nov. 9 for a case that challenges the Indian Child Welfare Act, which outlines procedures for placing Native children in foster or adoptive homes.

“We retain inherent sovereignty,” Morigeau said. “But over time, Congress and the Supreme Court have really eroded that in so many ways.”

Stewart Peregoy said if Native people don’t vote in this election, “their voices will be silenced. They will be canceled out, and (our progress) will be rolled back.”

“Vote,” she said. “Your life and your livelihood depend on it.”

Lee Montana reporter Nora Mabie is reporting from Montana tribal communities on how voter outreach and registration efforts resonate in Indian Country. This project was produced with financial support from the American Press Institute. 

The 7 Native American reservations in Montana overlay many legislative House and Senate districts. That can either concentrate or dilute the impact of tribal voters in local elections.
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