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Rights Do Have a Cost

“Everyone talks about rights, but they have a cost,” said attorney Sara Frankenstein in a recent article on (“With 2014 Elections Looming, Ninth Circuit Agrees to Hear Native Voting-Rights Appeal”; February 28, 2013). Frankenstein is representing the Montana state and county defendants in the federal voting-rights case Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch. For fiscal reasons, she elaborated. Native American Indians in Montana shouldn’t expect counties to spend the money needed to provide them with satellite early-voting offices.

“We all can’t have everything we want,” admonished Frankenstein, who is also representing two South Dakota counties there in a similar federal voting-rights case brought by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Voting is the backbone of our democracy, and yes, we agree, it has a cost. Native American Indians and veterans understand this. Many of us have paid the price in full. Not the dollars and cents that Frankenstein references, but the ultimate cost paid by members of the armed forces—for some, their lives, and for others, lifelong pain and disability. The lead plaintiff in the Montana case, Mark Wandering Medicine, was severely wounded while serving with the United States Marines in Vietnam. His son, a Marine serving in a tank division, was one of the first Americans to enter Iraq.

We have paid these costs for a long time, while serving with distinction in this country’s armed forces in a higher proportion than any other population group. During World War I, Choctaw Indians served as codetalkers in the U.S. Army. World War II’s codetalkers came from the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche nations. More Natives fought on the front lines.

More recently, American Indians and Alaska Natives have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, paying the price for equality. Among the fallen soldiers is Corporal Antonio C. Many Hides Burnside, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and citizen of Montana who was in the 82nd Airborne Division. He died on April 6, 2012 in Afghanistan. Other recent supreme sacrifices include Marine Corporal Brett Lundstrom, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe killed in Iraq in 2006. Army 101st Airborne Division Private First Class Sheldon R. Hawk Eagle, from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, died in Iraq in 2003.

Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The path for this action was prepared by great Americans who fought for equality during the civil rights movement of the 1960s: John Lewis (D.-Georgia) is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Jimmy Jackson, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, who was of Native American descent, were murdered in the battle for equal voting rights. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965 with Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and other civil-rights leaders in attendance. Ten years later, Congress amended the VRA to include American Indians.

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In 2013, we Native American Indians are still fighting for equal access to the polls—struggling for rights won by other groups a half-century ago. As part of voting-rights group Four Directions, which we co-direct, Oliver was one of several Native American civil-rights activists honored in 2005 by testifying before the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act. The commission’s report was submitted to Congress in February 2006. President Bush signed the VRA Reauthorization in July of that year.

More recently, Oliver participated in a friend-of-the-court brief in Shelby County, Alabama v. United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., a case now before our U.S. Supreme Court that will determine the fate of Section V of the VRA, which requires preclearance by the Department of Justice or a federal court before state and local governments in certain regions with a history of discrimination are allowed to make election procedural changes.

In Sara Frankenstein’s biography for her position as secretary for the South Dakota Republican Party, she appears to mock this long, and sometimes lethal, struggle. She writes: “Sara particularly enjoys defending public bodies from lawsuits brought by the ACLU and other ‘civil rights’ groups.” Four Directions has probably provided Sara lots of enjoyment. Sara deposed and cross-examined Oliver in the South Dakota case mentioned above, and she asked Four Directions to post a $90,000 bond in the Montana case—just in case she lost. What fun!

Seriously, those with an interest in civil rights should look at South Dakota’s recent voting-rights history, as detailed in the 144-page order in Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine. It describes discrimination against Native American voters, including illegal denials of the right to vote, voting-dilution schemes, barriers to voter registration, intimidation, unsubstantiated charges of voting fraud, non-compliance with the VRA’s language-assistance requirements and lack of polling-site access—just since 1999.

In an October 27, 2012 article in ICTMN (“United States Backs Native Voting Rights in Montana, Counties Want $90K if They Lose”), Frankenstein called the Montana tribal members’ request for equal voting a “slippery slope” that would “open the floodgates” to more voting-rights litigation. She’s right, and this is the big deal. Can you imagine the voting power Native people will have when tribes all over the US achieve equal access?

Frankenstein, with her focus on monetary costs and disregard for civil rights, is on the wrong side of history. The struggle begun by the Freedom Riders continues today in Indian country. We are certain that the rights of Native Americans to equal access to the ballot box—using the same opportunities their non-Native neighbors take for granted—will be enforced by federal courts. It is our hope that our non-Indian friends will soon no longer need to be told by a court to follow the law of the land.

Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of Four Directions.