Native vote is big in Montana

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BROWNING, Mont. – Montana state Senator-elect Carol Juneau of Browning was happy with the results on election night, when a total of 10 Indians – all Democrats – won election to either the state House or state Senate.

“This is the most we’ve ever had in the state Legislature,” she said.

When she was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1999, four Indians were serving in the state Legislature: and that was higher than in earlier years. It has gradually increased since that time, and in the last session there were eight.

“We had hoped there would be nine this year. Because I was term-limited and couldn’t run for the House again, Shannon Augare ran for my seat. He was unopposed and was elected.” Juneau said. “I ran for the Senate, where a non-Indian had served before, but he wasn’t eligible and I was elected. That made nine of us. Then Douglas Cordier, a Salish Kootenai man from Columbia Falls, ran against the incumbent and Cordier won. We were very pleased.”

Redistricting takes place every 10 years after the U.S. Census is completed. After the 2000 Census, redistricting designed six House districts and three Senate districts in which Indians were the majority. This ensured compliance with voting rights so Indian people would have an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, and was a major reason for the high number. Cordier was in a district where Indian people were in the minority.

Those now in office or just elected include three in the Senate: Frank Smith, Gerald Pease and Juneau. The first two were not up for re-election this year, and Juneau will begin her first Senate term. House representatives include Norma Bixby, in her fourth term; Margie Campbell, in her second term; Joey Jayne, in his fourth term; Veronica Small Eastman, in her third term; and Jonathan Windy Boy, also in his third term. Augare and Cordier are the two newly elected members who will be serving their first term.

“We worked very hard on the ‘Get Out the Indian Vote,’” Juneau said. “It had a big impact on the U.S. Senate race. I looked at data here in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation. In the precincts on the reservation we had 2,461 people vote, and 83 percent voted for Jon Tester. If you add all the Indian votes from throughout Montana’s seven reservations and figure that about 80 percent voted for Tester, that made a huge impact on the senatorial election.” That election, in which the Republican incumbent was defeated, was very close and the Indian vote certainly had a big impact.

“I think Jon Tester will be a good senator. He did a big tour and visited all the reservations the week before elections and had very positive reactions from Indian people. It shows the power of the Indian vote in Montana and the power of things we can change nationally. It’s something Indian people in Montana can be proud of,” Juneau said.

The impact of the Native vote was felt in many other elections throughout Montana. Big Horn County, where the Crow Reservation is located, had a full slate of Indian candidates and in some cases, Indians were running against other Indians for office.

Juneau laughed about the results on her own reservation, comparing the voting to a horse race. “The first returns are always from the precincts that have a high non-Indian population and we’re always getting beat. Then returns start coming in from the reservation itself, and we begin to gain and finally end up with a big win. We’re starting to have an impact on county governments. We just elected a clerk and recorder and a county commissioner here in Glacier County.”

That newly elected county commissioner is Ron Doore, an enrolled Blackfeet member. His observations about the voting pattern closely resemble Juneau’s. “I was down a little over 600 votes after the first six precincts reported. They pretty much make up the non-Native community. There were five Native American candidates running for county offices and there was a little fear of what could possibly happen. After the first six I was pretty nervous but on the other hand I thought I’d fare well, as that’s kind of what happened in the primary. In the 10 precincts that are primarily Native American voters, I got nearly 85 to 90 percent of the vote.” Doore ended winning by 994 votes.

Doore, whose mixed parentage includes Welsh and Irish ancestry on his mother’s side, campaigned hard off the reservation as well as on. “I look at it like I have the opportunity to bridge that gap between the tribal council and county-level government.” He concedes there is still a very prominent racial problem from both Native and non-Native people although, he said, it feels like the majority would like to see the communities get along and move forward. He also feels that many opportunities have been missed in Glacier County to make the county blossom both financially and culturally.

“At the end of my term I’d like to be able to look back and have those non-Natives who were so fearful of Native American influence in the county say, ‘Wow! What were we fearing?’”