PINE RIDGE, S.D. – The last few hours of general-election day 2010 ended with voters crowding into the Billy Mills Hall in the center of Pine Ridge village to participate in the state-federal election, the balloting for Oglala Lakota College’s board of trustees, school board races, a district contest, and an election for tribal officials that by day’s end gave John Yellow Bird Steele his sixth term as president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Tom Poor Bear the vice-presidency.
A carnival atmosphere pervaded Pine Ridge, the largest town on the reservation, as youngsters at each corner of the four-way stop outside Billy Mills and Big Bat’s gas station across the street shook neon-bright placards reading “vote,” and a parade of cars festooned with similar signs honked horns and wound through the precinct’s parking lot. Even the weather cooperated. Snow during the preceding week gave way on Nov. 2 to a warm, sunny day.
Turnout in the village was a trickle in the early morning, growing to a steady stream by noon, and a flood by evening. State Sen. Jim Bradford, Oglala Lakota, was one of the first to arrive at the polls; when the votes were tallied later that night, he’d been re-elected.
The number of voters – including Shannon County and off-reservation towns with a high proportion of Oglala residents – exceeded expectations. The goal was 2,700, but the final reckoning broke 3,000. Shannon County, which makes up the bulk of the reservation, was up 3.6 points over the most recent mid-term election, in 2006, which had a comparable roster of contested offices, said attorney Greg Lembrich, legal director of the voting-rights group Four Directions and a senior associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.
“It wasn’t just Shannon County participation that was up this year. Todd County, which is synonymous with the Rosebud Reservation, saw an increase of 6 points, and most other reservations in the state held steady. This was in contrast to a drop of 5 points for the entire state.”
The numbers represented a victory for Native suffrage after the drama of the near-disenfranchisement of the Oglala Sioux Tribe during September and October (as a result of the temporary resignations of officials in a neighboring county to whom election and other non-tribal government activities are outsourced), a long history of harassment of Native voters, and some Pine Ridge election disputes sorted out at the last minute by the Oglala Sioux Tribe Supreme Court.
During the final few weeks of the campaign, there were also GOP accusations that frybread and chili served at Democratic-party reservation events represented items of value traded for votes; in response, Democrats pointed out that Republicans never complained about food either party served at non-reservation events.
“Accusing a group of people of being willing to compromise their ethics for a bowl of chili is frustrating and demeaning. It also feeds historic mistrust,” said state legislator Kevin Killer, Oglala, who won a second two-year term on Nov. 2. “In the end, though, all these problems made clear the power of the Native vote and encouraged our people to come out today.”
Outside Pine Ridge village, in tiny towns elsewhere on the reservation, such as Porcupine and Manderson, the streets and polling places were quieter. In Porcupine, poll workers were chatting in Lakota as they took care of the voters who arrived, generally one by one.
At each precinct, one poll worker was the official Lakota translator, whose presence was required by an April 2010 Department of Justice Memorandum of Agreement. DOJ monitors were present at each Shannon County voting place to ensure a fair and orderly election according to the provisions of the MOA. Four Directions placed volunteer election observers on reservations statewide as well. Most were attorneys from Lembrich’s firm; one lawyer was from Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry; a Rosebud law enforcement officer, O.J. Semans Jr., Sicangu Lakota, also joined the team, as did students from Columbia Law School.
Those who’ve just been elected to office have plenty to do, said Killer. In his upcoming term, he’s planning to ensure that legislative redistricting stemming from the 2010 Census does not shortchange Pine Ridge. He’ll also focus on economic development. “Experts estimate that over the next decade, Native communities will eventually produce 5 percent of the country’s energy, mostly from renewable sources such as wind. This is a tremendous opportunity.”
With half the population at Pine Ridge under age 18, economic development must happen sooner rather than later, so there are jobs for young folks as they move into their 20s, said Killer. “All of us elected officials must be there for them.”