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Reservations make blue marks in red states

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NEW TOWN, N.D. – Native communities across the belly of the United States appear turquoise pebbles in a crimson belt.

North Dakota south to Texas all went red for John McCain on Nov. 4. No surprise to Marcus Wells Jr., Chairman of North Dakota’s Three Affiliated Tribes.

“North Dakota is no different than a lot of conservative states, we just weren’t ready,” Wells said.

He endorsed Barrack Obama, but he lives in a historically Republican state. The last time North Dakota went blue for a presidential candidate occurred in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won by a landslide.

Wells watched Obama’s acceptance speech on television from his home on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota.

“When he mentioned Native Americans, I was so impressed,” he said. “Even here at the state level, our congressmen barely use that open-mindedness because they don’t want to lose votes.”

A blue Mountrail County marked the most concentrated area of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara living on Fort Berthold.

Elsewhere in North Dakota, the Chippewa on Turtle Mountain produced a blue mark over Rolette County. Fort Totten’s Spirit Lake highlighted Benson County. Likewise, the Standing Rock Sioux marked Sioux County.

Across the swatch of Republican red, blue reservation counties joined urban centers and college towns in a county-by-county breakdown of the presidential election.

In South Dakota, Standing Rock (which straddles the North Dakota border) marked Corson County in blue. Likewise, Lake Traverse influenced Roberts, Marshall and Day counties; Cheyenne River colored Dewey County; Pine Ridge highlighted Shannon County; Rosebud marked Todd County.

The patchwork of blue counties is especially evident with Montana’s reservations: Crow in Big Horn County, Fort Peck in Roosevelt County, Flathead in Lake County, Blackfeet in Glacier County, Rocky Boy in Hill County, Fort Belknap in Blaine County.

Wyoming, however, appeared an outlier for Obama’s reservation pattern in the four-state region. Fremont County, with the Wind River Reservation, went red for McCain.

The last time any of the states favored a Democratic presidential candidate occurred in 1992 with Montana. Before 1992, the last time was 1964, when Johnson secured all four states.

Nevertheless, Alyce Spotted Bear, former chairwoman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, led a grassroots campaign to make sure Fort Berthold stood out in blue.

“I had never seen our people so enthusiastic about a candidate,” Spotted Bear said. “The interest in him extended from the very old to the very young. It wasn’t just voting age people. There were a lot of people who can’t even vote who were so interested in Obama.”

She spearheaded an Obama-week, Oct. 13-17, to promote the candidate. The week included daily events, such as an Obama t-shirt contest and promotional give-aways. On the final day, they hosted a rally that included a comedic sketch borrowed from Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey/Sarah Palin interview.

On Election Day, the Fort Berthold Obama Committee canvassed the reservation’s five segments with phone calls and doorbell ringing. The committee even provided transportation for those unable to access poll booths.

“There were so many individuals who were very disappointed that North Dakota didn’t go blue, and they said, ‘Oh well, their vote didn’t count because of that,’” Spotted Bear said. “But I was telling them, ‘Don’t feel bad because their vote does count in the popular vote.’ Their congressional representatives can go and look at the blue pockets of voters in North Dakota, and when you go look at them, you see the Indian reservations are all blue.”

Because many reservations fall within multiple counties, the Native voting block is often diluted with off-reservation votes. Spotted Bear said this occurred on Fort Berthold.

Fort Berthold falls within five counties. When North Dakota’s electoral map is broken down by individual counties, the Native voting block is only visible in Mountrail County – the heart of the reservation.

Spotted Bear said non-Natives who live opposite the reservation border overshadowed the tribe’s vote in McKenzie, McLean, Dunn and Mercer counties. All include reservation lands but went red for McCain.

The Three Affiliated Tribes’ push for Obama began after Chairman Wells met Obama at the North Dakota Democratic Convention in Fargo on April 4. Representatives from North Dakota’s Standing Rock, Fort Totten and Turtle Mountain reservations also met Obama at the event and endorsed his bid for the presidency.

Up until that meeting, Wells said he had been a Hillary Clinton supporter. He actually had preferred McCain to Obama. As a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he felt deep respect for McCain’s service and support of American troops.

 At the convention, Obama’s speech about “Hope” and “Change” convinced Wells to endorse Obama instead.

Wells’ mother had designed a star-spangled star quilt as a gift for the former senator. Ron His Horse Is Thunder, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman, then draped the red and blue over Obama’s shoulders.

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