This story was reported with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.
Stephanie Woodard is an award-winning journalist whose articles on American Indian rights and other topics have been published by many national publications and news sites.
Although indigenous to the Americas, American Indians became one of many minorities and the movement for American Indian civil rights began almost as soon as Europeans started to arrive in the Western Hemisphere. Following the establishment of the United States of America, Native Americans were denied basic civil rights for many years. While American Indians did not have a particular period of fighting for their civil rights like the African American Civil Rights Movement, measures have been taken to achieve equal rights for American Indians throughout history.
Because American Indians are citizens of their tribal nations as well as the United States, and those tribal nations are characterized under U.S. law as "domestic dependent nations", a special relationship exists which creates a particular tension between rights granted via tribal sovereignty and rights that individual Indians retain as U.S. citizens. This "dual citizen" status creates tension within the U.S. colonial context even today, but was far more extreme before Indians were uniformly granted U.S. citizenship in 1924. As non-whites, and non-citizen indigenous people, the United States built discriminatory language into their own laws and took on special colonial projects that denied basic human rights—particularly in the areas of cultural expression and travel—to their indigenous non-citizen "wards".
But for Ed “Buster” Moore, who lives on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, it wasn’t so simple. To cast a ballot during the absentee-voting period, he would have to make the 126-mile round trip to the Blaine County Courthouse in Chinook. That’s about $21 worth of gas, not to mention the income that Moore, an artisan, would lose by taking a half day off from his work making hand drums, rawhide bags and other items that he sells in the community and on the Internet. A diabetic, he’d have to buy lunch on the road. Those expenses add up.
If he had to vote today? “I couldn’t afford it,” Moore says. For tribal members who are unemployed or receiving assistance, voting would be impossible, he says. “It’s sheer economics.”
Moore’s situation isn’t unusual. Though measures that curtail minorities’ voting rights, such as stringent ID requirements and limited voting time, have made headlines in recent years, the challenges Native Americans face when they go to the polls have never been on the national radar. In the second decade of the 21st century, nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices, American Indians are still working to obtain equal voting rights.
Montanans can register to vote during the month preceding elections—but there’s a catch. The courthouses where they register are in largely white-inhabited county seats, not on reservations. In the nation’s fourth-largest state—at 147,040 square miles, bigger than Germany—that can mean daylong trips for people like Moore from isolated reservations.
And that’s just registration. The month-long voting period is supposed to make casting a ballot easier, and hundreds of thousands of Montanans take advantage of it. In 2012, 42.5 percent of voters either mailed in an absentee ballot or voted in person during the month leading up to Primary Day, according to state election results. In-person voting, however, is only allowed at those same county courthouses, a long way from reservations. And voting by mail poses its own difficulties, thanks to unreliable postal service on reservations. For Native people, casting a ballot in Montana can be a multi-day event.
The distance between reservations and county courthouses isn’t just an inconvenience; for many Natives, that distance can mean the difference between voting and not voting. Johnathan Walker, student body president of Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda College and an avid participant in get-out-the-vote efforts, recalls one 85-year-old woman who missed her opportunity to vote because Walker was unable to secure transportation for her to the courthouse...
Naomi White wanted to vote in Arizona’s primary in August, and wants to vote on Election Day in November. White had previously voted in Utah, and when she moved back to live on the Navajo Nation’s capital of Window Rock, she registered to vote in Arizona when she updated her license last year. But she told me she never received correspondence confirming her registration.
The 30-year-old attorney still primarily resides in Window Rock, but works some 300 miles away as a prosecutor for the Gila River Indian Community. Sometime before August’s primary, she called the Apache County Recorder’s office to see if she could vote early in the election, since she would be out in the field on the date of the primary. She says she was told that the physical address she listed was too obscure, and the Recorder couldn’t assign her to a precinct...