'Rez out the vote;' How Western Native Voice connects with voters in Montana

Mark Trahant

Montana primary election is June 5th and Western Native Voice challenges Indian Country to show up in full force

Erica Shelby and Patrick Yawakie

Western Native Voice

If you consider yourself a woke Native from Montana, chances are you’ve probably heard of Western Native Voice, a dynamic non-profit organization designed to inspire the Native leadership so our communities flourish.

One strategy Western Native Voice uses to inspire leadership is to engage Native Americans in the democratic process, or as we say on the Flathead, Rez out the Vote. In fact, if you live on any of the seven tribal nations, one of the urban areas that we serve, or have ever attended any kind of tribal function, you’ve probably already connected with one of our organizing teams or even used our ‘SkoVoteDen’ hashtag on social media.

Historically, Indians are disenfranchised from American politics due to several factors including, genocide, systemic oppression, and inter-generational trauma. More contemporarily, however, the stains of colonization have manifested as low-propensity voting in Indian Country through suppression tactics and apathy. We have now identified disengagement as the missing link in our collective efforts to heal our nations, decolonize our families, and revitalize our cultures.

Since its’ inception in 2011, Western Native Voice has consistently demonstrated an ability to develop a sustainable and well-oiled non-partisan civic engagement machine. A few of our many successes including the passage of Montana’s tribal regalia bill (SB 319), swaying elections, and working to mobilize the seven percent of Montana’s Native voting-age population. Western Native Voice is a powerful representation of traditional resiliency, resourcefulness, and innovation. Currently, we employ an all-Indian conglomerate of community organizers for the seven reservations as well as Missoula, Billings, and Great Falls. WNV also maintains an all-Native board and an exemplar management team in Leah Berry, associate field director, Marci McLean-Pollock, executive director, and Alissa Snow, field director and lobbyist.

It’s no secret that Natives are underrepresented in most political arenas and as a modern proverb asserts, "If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu."

The trend emerging from recent election results illustrates that during times of lower civic engagement, social ills that plague Indian Country such as youth suicide, drug addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and lack of services and healthcare increase. When we have consecutive election cycles of increased turnout those same issues are more likely to be contained and addressed at higher rates. Since our problems can only be solved from within, civic engagement is our path to sovereignty and voting is the easiest move we can make to effectively confront our issues. This is why the work Western Native Voice is is doing is so critical to our vitality as nations.

As Indian people, we face amplified adversities in our daily lives just to survive, and as organizers we have to accept the many dismal realities of the Indian plight. If you have ever canvassed or cold-called and you are aware of the social climate in Indian country, you can probably understand and appreciate how difficult our work can be. We face obstacles every day as community organizers, but it pales in comparison to the daily challenge to put food on the table for our families, keep a roof over our heads, and not become a statistic.

Not many people are capable of knocking doors in our communities, prodding and making sure that all of the adults are registered voters and enrolled WNV members, but this work is absolutely necessary. In addition, we also get contact information, log addresses in our voter database app, build voter target lists and maps, educate and create awareness around the issues facing us, and build relationships not only by our bosses’ directions, but by the requirements of the work itself.

Everyone in our organization has one thing in common and that is our passion and belief in our objective. Voting is not just a component of our pathway to freedom, it is the very first step we have to make to begin our progress. Often times the hopelessness we encounter on reservations, like the act of voting itself, can seem daunting, but in reality our problems are very easy to solve when we are engaged and voting is quite painless. Sometimes we mistake our own apathy as an imaginary ceiling holding us down and we are here to negate these obstacles and help clear our roads.

These midterm elections are definitive elections of this generation and for Indian country. They could mean the difference between termination and sustainability. We urge everyone to develop their sense of urgency to register, become educated on the issues, and vote smart! The Montana primary election is June 5th and we challenge Indian Country to show up in full force.

Please help us make voting our new tradition, when you get up in the morning you wash your face and brush your teeth, after high school you go to college, and when you turn 18 you vote.

Erica Shelby is a Western Native Voice Community Organizer for the Flathead Reservation. Patrick Yawakie is a Western Native Voice Community Organizer for the Crow Nation.