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Native Empowerment: One State at a Time

The Montana voter registration and mobilization program started by Western Native Voice in 2011 had a large impact on the 2012 election. Operating a community-centered, grassroots-based voter registration drive on all seven Indian reservations and in the cities of Montana, Western Native Voice registered over 6,300 Native American voters and mobilized them to vote. This effort had a powerful impact.

Overall, in Native American-dense precincts, the voter turnout rate was 61 percent. (The 2012 national rate in one estimate is 57.5 percent.) In the state capital, the election results are telling: Five state representatives and three state senators are Native American and now operate an effective Native American caucus in the state legislature. Montana also has the only state-wide Native American official in the U.S., State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. Plainly, the combination of grassroots organizing in Native communities combined with election protection at the polls to guarantee the integrity of the voting process resulted in Montana Native Americans making their voices heard at the polls.

The first citizens of North America gained voting rights in the U.S. with passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. By this law, Natives were granted U.S. citizenship and the corollary right to vote. However, as many Natives found out, actually casting that vote was often hard to impossible since voting procedures were controlled by the states. States created obstacles to Native voting such as literacy tests and denying voting rights by saying they did not pay state taxes or that Native Americans were residents of their reservations, not of the state. Without question, these unlawful tactics kept many Native American citizens of the United States from voting.

However, in Montana, Native Americans have fought a determined battle to achieve all the rights of citizenship since the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was passed even if the going was tough at times. Using every avenue, from the courts to election protection campaigns to fight back, Natives here achieved substantial accomplishments at the local and state levels. One example, the now historic court case Windy Boy v. Big Horn County, resulted in a Federal District Court ruling that invalidated at-large elections in Big Horn County and the local school district. (The way at-large elections are run make it difficult for Native candidates to be successful in elections.)

These accomplishments are the stepping stones for Natives who became elected leaders on the community and state levels. From county commissioners to state representatives and senators such as Carol Juneau, Bill Yellowtail and Margie Campbell, Montana Natives have made a place for themselves at the table. These accomplishments are also the basis for the strong Native caucus in the current state legislature as well. Natives in Montana are proud to be national leaders in Native American political empowerment and are thankful for the hard work of those who made this possible.

However, the work for Native empowerment goes on, and, after the 2012 election, Western Native Voice continues to do its part. In the 2013 state legislature, Western Native Voice is one of only two Native American organizations in the state working on a range of issues vital to Natives including defending voting rights, protecting tribal bison, defending sovereignty, expanding language preservation, and improving tribal/state relations. This organization also gave recommendations to the new governor's office for appointments for Native American leaders to the boards and commissions that advise state government. Western Native Voice, moreover, is working with the tribes and counties on establishing satellite voting stations in Native communities for the 2014 election through having all interested parties at the table.

March 12, 2013, was a historic day for Natives in Montana. For the first time, a pipe ceremony was held in the Capitol building between tribal leaders and state legislators and this shows just how far Montana has come. Moreover, Governor Steve Bullock of Montana revealed his deep respect for Native culture by giving his permission to hold this ceremony in the Capitol. (Even more encouraging, Bullock has publicly supported Senate Bill 342 which will help preserve Native languages in Montana).

Through voting, Montana Native Americans are shaping a positive future for generations to come by preserving traditional culture and defending Native sovereignty. Western Native Voice will continue this progressive work by being a voice for Native people not just in voting but every day. In the future, this organization will expand to other states to help other Native American communities achieve a permanent voice in their government. 

Dustin Monroe is a member of the Assiniboine Tribe of Montana and a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army. He has worked on all seven reservations in Montana promoting economic development and job creation. He has a B.A. in business from the University of Montana and is the executive director for the Western Native Voice in Billings, Montana.