ARLEE — It’s not news that Indian Country isn’t naturally a “friend” of the Republican Party. However, Republican candidates are making attempts to “build relations” with tribal nations.
According to Carroll College Political Science professor Jeremy Johnson, Native Americans make up 8 percent of Montana’s population.
Johnson said, “If that was fully mobilized, it would certainly be a significant force in Montana politics. And it is my understanding that the Native American population is increasing faster than other parts of the population in Montana.”
Montana’s political parties are waking to the Native vote and putting more effort in to secure the Native vote; thus, Greg Gianforte, Republican gubernatorial candidate, made a few visits to Montana Indian Reservations this summer. Arlee powwow was one of them.
The visit wasn’t to deliver any sort of campaign speech, but to introduce himself, and “build a bridge to the state’s native population and voters on the Flathead Reservation.”
Gianforte did acknowledge the role of governor is to be service to the entire state, and tribal nations are an important part of Montana. “I think it is really critical, you can’t build relationships if you’re not there being with the people,” he said.
Gianforte’s campaign message is in line with Indian Country goals: Montanans believe economic growth and high wage jobs throughout the state are important issues.
During the Arlee Celebration in July, Salish cultural instructor Vance Home Gun, 22, said to Montana Public Radio that he appreciates elected officials and candidates coming to the reservations and listening to what Montana’s Native communities have to say.
Home Gun had a chance to sit down and talk with Gianforte. As they looked around the powwow grounds, Home Gun pointed out that most tribal people vote Democrat.
“My whole growing up I’ve always seen people say ‘I’m a Democrat and these are the issues I care about, and I want to hear your concerns.’ Rarely have I ever heard a Republican do that,” said Home Gun.
Home Gun said he sees the increase in Natives becoming well informed about political issues, and with better turnouts for the upcoming election, the Native vote could make or break a candidate.
Home Gun admitted when it comes to his own political beliefs, he is conflicted.
“If I wasn’t an Indian, I’d probably be full on Republican. But since I am an Indian and I tend to see major support from the Democrat side, and I got to support that,” he said.
Home Gun said he sees Democratic politicians aspiring to build bridges with tribal nations and see Native culture as valuable. “And the Republican side? Honestly it’s tough,” he said.
While on the short-lived summer powwow trail, Gianforte stated, “We need to do more to bring prosperity to the reservations.”
Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan said the Democratic Party believes the conservative politicians’ visits are “campaign props” and there is no support in policies or ideas that will benefit Montana’s American Indians.
“Supporting Indian Country in its efforts to strengthening tribal sovereignty and promote economic development means a better future for all of us,” Keenan said. However, she adds that Republicans have long ignored the voices of American Indians.
Keenan said Gianforte and Congressman Ryan Zinke might show up at gatherings, but claims they don’t have good records when it comes to supporting Indian Country.
According to the Montana’s Democrats record, Zinke supported repealing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act; condemned Indian Dependence on Government Services; opposed millions of dollars in increasing funding to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and education and health services.
Montana Dems point out that Gianforte has said in several campaign stops that he does not support the CSKT water compact; and selected Lesley Robinson as his running mate, who leads the fight to take bison rights away from tribal communities.
Montana Democrats believe politicians need to gain trust with in Indian Country.
At a recent campaign fundraiser in Billings, Gianforte was asked by a member of the audience, “Do you have any kind of plan to fix the reservations in this state? Everything from crime, the drugs, etc.”
Gianforte replied, “Well, it’s been on my heart a long time and as I’ve gotten invitations, I’ve gone to Indian country and primarily focused on entrepreneurial seminars,” he said.
Gianforte said he has been on all the reservations, and pointed out there was “a hard problem” on the Blackfeet Reservation.
“It’s a long topic but, when you don’t have opportunity, you lose hope. And you turn to drugs and alcohol and other things,” Gianforte said.
He added that, “Somehow we gotta’ work to bring hope back to these communities.”
His answer for “hope” was “a free market.”
“There are some basic things that are required for a free market to prosper; and some of these things don’t exist on our reservations.
The “things don’t exist” he listed were: consistent rule of law; respect of property rights; lack of nepotism; the ability to keep the fruits of your labor; and a cultural norm that celebrates success.
“These things exist in very limited forms on these reservations,” Gianforte said, using the Crow Reservation as an example. Gianforte suggested that tribal entrepreneurs start businesses off the reservations in nearby towns and cities to have protections of the courts.
He also suggests that the government shouldn’t “strangle” the coal industry, which is the largest economic force on the Crow Reservation. “The state can come along side — and I also know enough that as a white guy, the last thing the Indians want is another white guy showing up telling them what to do,” he said.
Gianforte closed his comment by saying, “As I get invitations (to go to reservations) I go. I got a chance to play the stick game with the chairman of the Salish Kootenai while there, and I was really proud of the fact when Schweitzer played him, Schweitzer got beat in two minutes. I lasted an hour,” he said.
“But then I knew, I knew I should let him win.”