ARLEE — Once her guests had filled their Indian tacos, Alissa Snow made sure they got a message.
“The Native vote is powerful,” she told about 30 diners at this town’s Tribal Senior Center. “We have the power to decide elections. … A lot of these races are decided by the Native vote.”
Snow’s organization, Montana Native Vote, is making that point a few final times on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Those who came to Thursday night’s Arlee event got more than a free taco and motivational speech. Snow and the group’s other staff also went through their endorsed candidates and ballot measures; picked up absentee ballots; helped with late registration, and arranged Election Day rides to the polls.
Each vote they’re able to deliver could make a difference in Montana’s knife-edge races for Senate and Congress, and its state and local contests. Montana Native Vote’s workers have an even higher goal: bring the Treasure State’s Native Americans back to the polls after decades of exclusion.
Patrick Yawakie, one of the Billings-based political action committee’s community organizers, doesn’t mince words about that past. “Due to years of oppression from both the state of Montana as well as federal, we've been suppressed in our vote,” he said. “We've been discouraged, and uneducated in the ways of western governments and their election processes.”
In Montana, that trend began in 1889, when the new state’s Constitution restricted voting to U.S. citizens — a status that Native Americans didn’t gain as a birthright until 1924. In the 1930s, the state Legislature added tax-paying and residency requirements that effectively barred many Native Americans from the polls.
Some of these policies stayed on the books until the 1970s. Even when they were lifted, Indian voters and candidates often found themselves mapped within majority-white, at-large districts. The state’s districting practices drew seven federal lawsuits from 1983 to 2013, according to a 2016 paper prepared by the TURN Network’s Moana Vercoe.
Together, these policies stunted political participation on Montana’s reservations. “Voting is so new that people aren’t making these connections to change in their communities and how voting ties into that,” Snow said. Nationwide, voters who identified solely as “American Indian/Alaska Native had the lowest turnout of any racial group in the 2008 election, according to research and advocacy organization Demos.
Little by little, that’s changing. According to the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Native voter turnout in Montana rose from 55 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016. Snow said that Montana Native Vote has gathered more absentee ballots than it had at this point in the 2016 election.
Several factors are driving the increase. Dave Beck, a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana, credits a 2003 state redistricting plan that increased the number of majority-Indian House and Senate districts.
All of a sudden, “American Indian people were able to elect American Indian candidates. … That gives people an incentive to get people to the polls.” The National Congress of American Indians also cites Montana’s 2003 redistricting as a key gain for Native American voting rights.
Groups like Montana Native Vote are also driving the trend. The Billings-based political action committee has organizers on Montana’s seven reservations, and in Missoula, Billings and Great Falls, knocking on doors, registering voters, picking up ballots and, in this penultimate week of the campaign, serving up Indian tacos around the Flathead Reservation.
“It’s inspiring to see them get so involved,” said Snow, Montana Native Vote’s state field director. Growing up on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations, she grappled with poverty, addiction and student loan debt. Now, Snow wants better for her two adult daughters. “I don’t want my daughters growing up with the same worries I did,” she said.
The taco feed’s guests voiced a variety of other concerns, from local trash collection to gun rights. And Montana’s campaigns have frequently touched on Native issues, from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' water compact to missing and murdered indigenous women.
Some candidates, Yawakie told the group, would meet these needs better than others.
“There’s candidates such as Jon Tester, Kathleen Williams, Caroline McDonald — these are the people that care about us,” Yawakie told the audience.
Montana Native Vote has endorsed the Democrats in Montana’s U.S. House and Senate races, Lake County’s commissioner race, and several other local and state races. Two of the group’s picks, Democratic House candidate Eldena Bear Don’t Walk and nonpartisan judicial candidate Ashley Morigeau, turned out Thursday.
Republicans haven’t entirely avoided Indian Country. Caroline McDonald’s incumbent opponent, Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker, briefly dropped in Thursday night. Greg Gianforte joined the Arlee Celebration powwow as a gubernatorial candidate in 2016, and — as a congressman — appeared with Williams at Crow Fair last summer. But the campaign has left Yawakie with few positive words for the GOP.
"The issue of candidates like Gianforte not showing up to our forum sent a clear message.” Earlier this month, Kathleen Williams and Libertarian Elinor Swanson attended a House candidates forum at Salish Kootenai College. It had been organized by Western Native Voice, a nonpartisan political engagement group that shares several employees with Montana Native Vote.
Gianforte's campaign said they hadn’t heard of the event and would have liked to attend, but Yawakie gave the Missoulian documentation of attempts to reach the incumbent.
The group’s preferences fit the historical pattern, said UM’s Beck. While not a monolithic voting bloc, “in general terms, Native Americans, for the last 50 years at least, have been very strongly Democratic.”
Native Americans make up about 8 percent of Montana’s population. While their numbers are small, “they can be a swing group,” said Beck. “When American Indians in Montana started voting in significant numbers, they became enough of a force that in a state like ours, where we have such close elections, they can be the difference between winning and losing.”
An often-cited case in point is the 2006 vote that brought Tester into office. The margin of victory was fewer than 4,000 votes, but Native Americans cast 17,000 ballots.
Twelve years later, Tester faces another close race, and Montana’s voters have a new factor on their minds, if not their ballots: a presidency like no other.
“The president has divided this country,” said Bill Adams, a Blackfeet resident of Arlee. “The candidates that he supports that pledge loyalty to him, obviously I have no trust or respect for.”
In two days, Donald Trump Jr. was scheduled to join both Gianforte and Senate candidate Matt Rosendale at a Ronan campaign stop, and Yawakie was none too pleased.
“What Trump said, calling himself a nationalist recently … it's very clear to us the objectives and the actions that these people are trying to make on us.”
With the polls tight, Saturday’s planned “Montana Victory Tour” stop on the reservation had steeled Yawakie’s resolve.
“We're working double time now because they're trying to do that.”
With less than two weeks before Election Day, he said things were going “pretty well.”
“Right now, we're just focused on absentee ballot chasing, also focusing on people who haven't gotten their ballots yet and making sure that we have all the resources that they need to be able to get votes, we have absentee registration forms for folks.”
"We're actually getting people who've said they sent their ballots in already, and that's very encouraging. … For the people who haven't registered we're signing them up, making sure they've got rides. We're working with the Tribal Council for resources.” The Lake County Elections Office has also been helpful, she said.
Accessing far-flung voters can be tough on the reservations. While voting by mail is popular in Montana, Snow said it’s not always reliable. Ballots can go missing, as can P.O. box keys. “There are just a lot of obstacles to connecting ballots to the person.”
Montana Native Vote’s ballot pick-ups can help voters clear those hurdles. So can satellite polling locations. “We organize heavily around those days” when they’re open, Snow explained, “and we treat every day like an election day.”
She shares Yawakie’s view that things are going well overall, but threats have cropped up. Next Tuesday, voters will decide on Legislative Referendum 129, which would prohibit most people from collecting someone else’s ballot — potentially crippling ballot collection efforts like these. She predicted that “129 would have a devastating impact on Indian voter turnout."
Meanwhile, Montana Native Vote’s political director, Leah Berry, recently told the Missoula Current about issues with ballots and unfriendly staff at polling locations in Great Falls, Poplar and Rocky Boy.
Amid these problems, “we’re staying vigilant,” Yawakie said. "We have poll watchers and things like that,” and if tribal members face issues, “we'll walk them through the process and make sure that their vote is being counted properly."
For all these efforts, the organizers couldn’t spare all their guests from political fatigue. “I just gave up on it,” said Scott McClure of voting. “What use is it?” he asked, “It never changes nothin'.”
But Bill Adams couldn’t disagree more. The Blackfeet member has voted for 30 years, and said he plans to cast his ballot on Election Day.
“We stand to lose a lot that we’ve struggled a long time to get" by not voting, he said. Of the Republicans, he said that “a bully only bullies us if we allow him.”
“I have seen in several areas, there are a lot of Native people who would vote,” he said. “They just need a little helping hand to get there.”