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Showing posts from 2013

Justice Department Declares Indian Vote Denial "Completely Incorrect"

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This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in October 2013.

“May it please the court, Erin Flynn on behalf of the United States.”So began the Justice Department’s presentation in a landmark Native voting-rights lawsuit. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting in Portland, Oregon, heard oral arguments in the suit, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, in early October.
The appeals court’s decision, upcoming in the next few months, will turn on whether a Montana district judge misread Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act when he denied requests for satellite registration and early-voting offices on isolated Montana reservations. The local magistrate reasoned that Indians have been elected to office in the state, so Indian voters’ lack of equal rights—which he readily acknowledged—was immaterial.
“The district judge held that as long as Indians get to vote at all, what’s the problem,” said attorney Steven Sandven, of Sioux Falls, counsel for the plaintiffs, along with David Bradley Ol…

The Long and Winding Road

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This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in October 2013. 





A winter storm struck Montana shortly before the October 10 appeals-court hearing for the voting-rights lawsuit Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch. Snow, hail, lightning and high winds closed roads and made obvious why Montana Indians were asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to help them obtain satellite voting offices for their reservations—something a lower court denied last year.
Even in good weather, the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, Mark Wandering Medicine, and his Northern Cheyenne neighbors have tough time registering to vote. They travel as many as 180 miles over mountains and across prairies to the county seats where this, and early voting, may be done. Two other tribes involved in the lawsuit—Crow and Fort Belknap—face similar obstacles. When roads are treacherous, as they may be during the fall election season, their trips are perilous indeed.
On the eve of the appeals-court hearing, in Portland, Oregon, ICTM…

Standing Rock Sioux Move to Rescue Children, Accuse State of Genocide

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This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in October 2013. 









Citing the 1987 Proxmire Act, which enables the United States to prosecute acts of genocide, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has asked the federal government to file suit against the state of South Dakota for crimes against tribal children. The tribe’s homeland, shown above, is in the prairies and badlands of North and South Dakota; one of its most revered leaders was Sitting Bull, who is said to have prayed Native forces to victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Standing Rock’s tribal council urged the United States to take action in a September 17 resolution claiming that South Dakota has been taking its children into care and adopting them out of the tribe illegally, in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The resolution was passed the day after a child-welfare advocate informed the council that a young tribal member whom the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS) had placed with a white adoptive cou…

“He was my only son”: Fort Peck mother calls for Congressional inquiry

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This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in November 2013. 
The Montana Supreme Court has dismissed the wrongful-death lawsuit that Fort Peck tribal councilwoman Roxanne Gourneau filed against her local school board after her teenage son’s suicide in 2010. Gourneau, shown right, talked to ICTMN about her journey of the last three years and why she thinks Congress needs to scrutinize the schools her son attended in Wolf Point, a white-dominated town within the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in northeastern Montana. She and her son paid a terrible price for the school district’s long-term dysfunction, she said.

On November 23, 2010, Dalton Gourneau, shown below, was a 17-year-old high school senior at Wolf Point High School. Just hours before he took his own life, the well-liked teen was kicked off the wrestling team, allegedly for possessing chewing tobacco. At the time, Dalton’s mother recalled, he felt he had a good shot at a state wrestling championship. Participating in an …

Montana School District Charged with Voting Rights Violations

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This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in October 2013.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Wolf Point School District, which has a predominantly Native student population, drawn from the surrounding Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in northeastern Montana. The suit argues that school board districts favor non-Native voters and should be redrawn.
Wolf Point is the largest community on the reservation and has a two-part school district. The predominantly non-Native portion, with 430 residents, elects three members to the eight-member school board of trustees. The 4,205 residents of the predominantly Native American portion—nearly 10 times as many people—elect five members. That means one board member from the mostly white area represents 143 residents, while board members from the mostly Native area each represent 841 people, according to the suit, Jackson et al v. Wolf Point School District.
This imbalance violates the one-person-one-vote principl…

7 Questions for Laughlin McDonald, of the ACLU

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This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in 2013.


Last month, Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, filed his 14th Native civil-rights lawsuit. The plaintiffs are Fort Peck tribal members who want equal representation in school board elections in Wolf Point, Montana, where many of their children attend school.
Thirty years ago, McDonald’s first Indian-country lawsuit got underway just a few hundred miles away. In 1983, in Windy Boy v. County of Big Horn, Montana, McDonald and Montana attorney Jeffrey Renz represented Crow and Northern Cheyenne voters who wanted to elect candidates of their choice to the county commission and school board. In between, the legendary civil-rights attorney participated in Native enfranchisement cases throughout the West, testified before Congress multiple times and wrote several books and numerous articles.
A U.S. Army veteran and University of Virginia Law School graduate, McDonald bec…

Navajo Nation and DOJ Scrutinize Border Towns

This first appeared in Indian Country Today in August 2013.
The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has completed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the U.S. Department of Justice. Signed in July by commission chairperson Steven A. Darden, Navajo, and Justice Department officials, the MOU focuses on enforcement of tribal members’ federal civil rights in border towns surrounding the Navajo Nation.
The off-reservation municipalities lie in four states: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. Going forward, NNHRC and the Indian Working Group—a team of attorneys within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—will share information and forward documented incidents in the towns to the proper authorities, said NNHRC executive director, Leonard Gorman, Navajo.
Prior to participating in this historic agreement, NNHRC held 25 hearings culminating in a 2010 report on border town discrimination. Like previous reports—including by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission—this one found ra…

South Dakota Voter-Suppression Scandal Escalates

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This article appeared on the Huffington Post in August 2013. 
South Dakota has devised an ingenious new way to curb minority voting. For decades, suppression here has involved activities that won’t surprise those who follow enfranchisement issues: last-minute changes to Indian-reservation polling places, asking Native voters for ID that isn’t required, confronting them in precinct parking lots and tailing them from the polls and recording their license-plate numbers. The state and jurisdictions within it have fought and lost some 20 Native voting-rights lawsuits. Two South Dakota counties were subject to U.S. Department of Justice oversight until June of this year.
That’s when the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying, “Today, our Nation has changed.”
Yes, it has. The VRA decision provided the opening for those who are uncomfortable when minorities, the poor and other marginalized citizens vote. Since the decision, new measures to limit enfranc…

South Dakota Voting Rights Suit Dismissed; Plaintiffs Targeted for Costs

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This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in August 2013. 
Plaintiffs and defendants both claimed victory on August 6, when U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier dismissed the Native voting-rights lawsuit Brooks v. Gant. Oglala Sioux Tribe members had sued South Dakota state and county officials, seeking a satellite early-voting and registration office that would give them elections in their own county and equal to those other South Dakotans enjoy.
Once the lawsuit got underway, the state and county defendants promised to use federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money to give the 25 plaintiffs what they wanted through 2018. According to Judge Schreier, this meant the plaintiffs could no longer show the required “immediate injury,” so she dismissed their claim. However, she noted, her decision was “without prejudice,” meaning that, if necessary, the plaintiffs can sue again.
“They caved,” said OJ Semans, Rosebud Sioux civil rights leader and co-director of voting-advocacy gr…