When Steve Daines visited the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer in 2014 to meet with tribal leaders as a freshman member of Congress, he was greeted with a traditional honor dance and an energetic performance highlighting their other customs. But it was what came next that caught his attention.
“‘You’re the first Republican congressman to set foot in our tribal headquarters,'” Daines, now a U.S. senator, recalled the tribe’s president telling him. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I said: ‘I’m very glad to be here. Let’s roll up our sleeves and see if we can work together on finding solutions to these challenges.'”
“In many ways Native Americans have been overlooked” by politicians in the past, said Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican seeking re-election against Democrat Denise Juneau. “The Indian Nations that have not had significant representation, I think, have been hurt.”
Juneau, who is Montana’s public schools superintendent, is seeking to become the first Native American woman in Congress. Juneau is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes.
Dana Wilson, vice chairman of the Crow Tribe, said lawmakers are taking more time to meet with Indian leaders and hear their concerns. And they are sticking around to participate in celebrations, parades and other festivities.
“I haven’t really noticed that in the past,” Wilson said. “Ten years ago, I don’t really remember seeing any candidates coming down to the reservation just campaigning.”
The face time has allowed Crow Tribe members to learn more about the candidates and establish a relationship with someone who can help them in Washington. Wilson said he plans to vote for Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, noting that both he and the congressman hold geology degrees and care strongly about veterans’ issues.
“Those are some of the things that I admire in him,” he said. “But more importantly it’s that he did go to bat for the Crow Tribe, and we need someone to go to bat for us.”
Politicians are likely paying more attention to Native Americans for several reasons, according to lawmakers, political scientists and the tribes themselves.
For one, more young Indian voters are getting an education and taking a bigger interest in what’s going on outside their reservation. In addition, recent elections in Montana have been close, making every vote count in a sparsely populated state where there is not a lot of polling conducted.
“When you have a race that’s separated by a few thousand votes, and you have tens of thousands of Native American voters in the state, that can certainly swing an election,” said Jeremy Johnson, associate professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena.
Dustin Monroe, who founded Native Generational Change in Missoula to help register Native Americans to vote and get involved in the political process, said if more Indians can make their voices heard, there will be more pressure on politicians to listen and follow through on their promises. He is particularly concerned about the inability of Washington to address challenges Native Americans face with housing and health care provided by the federal government at Indian Health Service facilities.
The group has succeeded in getting people registered but struggled to get them to the polls. In 2012, 61 percent of registered Native American voters in the state voted, up 1 percent from four years earlier, Monroe estimated.
“They’ve started taking notice of our vote because our vote in a lot of these states is the swing vote,” said Monroe, a member of the Nakoda Tribe of Fort Belknap and descendant of the Amskapi Pikuni Tribe. “For the first time you see both parties come to the reservation and actually campaign and have to get out the vote. I think they are starting to listen, but is it really going to change as much as we hope? Not really much has changed.”
Republicans Zinke and Daines, and Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, routinely collaborate on legislation to help Native Americans in Montana. The measures they have worked on include getting federal recognition for the Little Shell Tribe, calling for increased awareness of crimes against American Indian women, and seeking to make permanent a tax break for coal mined from reserves owned by Natives.
Until recently, Republicans have paid less attention to Native Americans in large part because tribes have traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party.
But increasingly Republicans have latched on to issues where they tend to be in lockstep with Native Americans, such as the extraction of resources including coal. Tribes have said revenue from the energy source on their land, for example, accounts for much of their annual budget to fund health services, law enforcement and education. Coal and oil have been a target of Democrats in Washington who are concerned about their pollution impact on the environment.
“There is always a tendency for people to go to their more traditional constituent groups, places where they are more comfortable,” Daines said of politicians. “It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Republicans in the past have not been reaching out to Indian country and so that becomes more of a Democratic voting bloc. Then they say, ‘Well we’re just not going to engage Indian country because there aren’t any votes there.’ That is wrong thinking.”
David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University, said it would be a mistake for candidates to ignore Native American voters where turnout can be low compared to the rest of the state.
“You have to spend a lot more time, energy and resources to get out these voters who haven’t had a history of strong voter turnout,” Parker said.
Daines, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who isn’t up for election until 2020, visited six of the state’s seven Indian reservations in August and met with tribal leaders of the seventh earlier this year in Washington. In July, Zinke’s office hired a Native American outreach director to help him work with the tribes. Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has made it a priority to get out to the reservations when he’s in Montana.
Tester introduced legislation last year that would require states to establish polling locations on reservations if the tribes requested them to make it easier for Native Americans to vote. In many cases, he said, polling locations are too far away — a factor that can be especially challenging for people who don’t have a driver’s license. According to the National Congress of American Indians, Native American voter turnout was 17 percent less than non-Natives in 2012.
“We got a long way to go, to be honest with you,” Tester said. “We should not be happy with the voter turnout” for Native Americans and other voters.
In late August, Zinke and his Democratic challenger Juneau held their first debate on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Amy Croover, who works for the Montana Democratic Party to get Native Americans to vote, said the event was symbolic of the widespread support Juneau has received from many Indians who believe her background allows her to better understand their issues. Some people, she said, have been energized to register voters without getting paid. Croover herself just got married in August and is living in a cramped basement in Helena away from her husband and their new home in Portland, Ore., until the election is held.
Juneau supporters are aware the Native American vote is crucial for her to unseat Zinke in Washington.
“A lot of bad policy has been passed in Indian country, and we just have to live with it and wait until we have a champion who can come along and actually fix some of the bad policy of the bad,” said Croover, a member of the Ho-Chunk Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and a graduate of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo. “Because of (Juneau’s) candidacy, Indian country is going to turn out like they’ve never turned out before. They’re excited to have someone who knows their community represent them in Congress.”