Powwow For Change

In Montana, Indian reservations gear up for election day.

By Robert Struckman Oct 31, 2008

The sign on the front of the Barack Obama campaign office in the small Hi-Line town called Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana doesn’t announce the candidate’s name.

It says, "Not paid for by PAC money."

"What are signs for? It’s what people ask about," says office manager Georgiana Lee. In a town the size of Wolf Point, everybody knows the Obama office location, she added.

With just a few days to go before the election, the local volunteer force has grown downright frenetic. Not content with simply working the phone banks and tuning into candidate debates, volunteers gathered earlier this week to eat fry bread and stew while watching Michelle Obama’s appearance on Jay Leno.

One steadfast Obama supporter has organized a "Powwow for Change!" for this weekend. The Fort Peck Tribe has even donated a buffalo for the feast.

This lightly populated country of Indian reservations and, largely, conservative white farmers and ranchers may seem like unlikely Obama territory, but it is part of a front line that wends west toward distant peaks and south through the Rocky Mountains. The political dynamics in places like Wolf Point have helped turn Montana back toward its populist roots and have granted victories to Democrats locally and statewide and may help toss the Big Sky State’s three electoral votes into Obama’s pile.

It’s difficult to understate the remoteness of this part of the country, and the extremity of its weather. Out here on the cold High Plains the wind blows incessantly—all the big black plastic trash bins in town wear welded steel skirts to keep them from blowing away; two summers ago, not far away, a National Weather Service station recorded sustained winds of over 100 miles an hour.

Maybe that’s why it seems so incongruous to hear Obama volunteer Elijah Hopkins declare how great it was when Los Angeles Laker star guard Derek Fischer visited recently or when actor Matt Damon raved about Montana’s seven reservations on a conference call with the office a week ago.

"I missed out on that," said Hopkins, a college student and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. "Everyone was like, ‘You missed out. You missed out.’"

Hopkins, who is studying business administration, has never really considered politics as a career for himself, although he says it’s possible.

In the office earlier this week, he lifted up the campaign sign of his uncle, Montana Senate candidate Jonathan Windy Boy.

"I know it’s possible," Hopkins said.

While Hopkins, and others, have been inspired by Obama’s run, conversations about politics quickly turn toward the success of Native candidates, and what many here describe as the latent racism plaguing elections.

It has only been about 22 years since concerted efforts to deprive Native Americans of the vote resulted in federal court victories. The main case, Windy Boy v. Big Horn County, laid out how election clerks used at-large county commission elections to dilute Indian voting power, struck Indian voters from the rolls and otherwise routinely and persistently "interfered with the rights of Indian citizens to register and to vote," wrote Judge Edward Rafeedie.

About 10 years ago a redrawing of legislative boundaries yielded more Indian-majority districts, which has matched the number of Native American legislators to the relative size of the Native population in the state—about 6 percent. Montana, the fourth-largest state, has just about one million people, according to a July U.S. Census estimate.

For Ryan Rusche, a member of the Fort Peck Tribe and the Roosevelt County Attorney, the rise in the number of Indian legislative candidates helped increase voter participation on the reservation.

"We’re seeing Indians running against Indians in the primaries," Rusche said.

There have been some demographic changes, too. Reservations have had strong population growth over the past decades, while that of other towns and rural areas have shrunk. Over the past decade, Indians in Roosevelt County have grown from 40 percent of the population to about 60 percent.

That growth—only a few hundred voters here and there—helped tip the balance in the U.S. Senate two years ago when record-high turnout on reservations helped edge out challenger Jon Tester to victory over embattled Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. Tester, a large wheat farmer from Big Sandy with a flat top, helped give the Democrats a slim majority in Congress.

The surging Native vote has yielded plenty of real-world changes, Rusche said. For instance, Montana’s state government recently signed an agreement with the Fort Peck Tribe on oil tax revenue, which has opened the door for development of tribal oil reserves. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has appointed more Indians to positions on commissions and in state government than all of his predecessors, Democratic and Republican, combined.

Back in Obama’s field office in Wolf Point this week, two volunteers made calls while the late afternoon wind whined and whistled outside. Another volunteer talked about the upcoming powwow and feed: "We’re cooking up a buffalo, and each family will bring something to eat. It’ll be like old times."

Robert Struckman writes and edits for NewWest.net in Missoula, Montana.