The Democratic Party’s Indian Problem

Montana’s first territorial governor, Brigadier General (and Democrat) Thomas Meagher.
A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in March 2014.

On the afternoon of March 9, the Montana Democratic Party leadership was holed up in a small stone building in the state’s capital, Helena. Inside were Democratic National Committee members Jorge Quintana and Jean Lemire Dahlman, party chair Nancy Anderson and other members of the party’s executive board.

Outside on the sidewalk were Mark Wandering Medicine, Northern Cheyenne (shown below), and three other Native Americans who had tried to persuade the board to support an equal-voting-rights lawsuit. Reporters and a documentary film crew waited with them, hoping to learn how Democrats had just ended up saying ‘no’ to minority civil rights in the second decade of the twenty-first century—and in an election year.

Across the street was a striking bronze statue of Montana’s first territorial governor, Brigadier General (and Democrat) Thomas Meagher. He’s depicted astride a warhorse and brandishing a saber—forever in command. For today’s Democrats inside the building, the mood was perhaps less so. As the sunny afternoon wore on, they began exiting the building, bolting out the back or down the front steps, chins tucked, grimacing. They refused to comment on their rejection of the resolution Wandering Medicine had offered.

Wandering Medicine’s document had requested party support for a federal lawsuit, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, that would give Natives satellite voting offices on their reservations during the month leading up to federal elections, thus the same ballot-box access as those living in mainly white county seats. The latter vote in their local county courthouses during that month; for some reservation residents, the journey can be nearly 200 miles round trip. The U.S. Department of Justice has joined the suit on the side of the Native plaintiffs. Lead defendant is Montana’s secretary of state and top elections official, Linda McCulloch, a Democrat.

When Wandering Medicine presented the resolution to the executive board, he was accompanied by his wife, Ilo; William Main, Gros Ventre former chairman of Fort Belknap Indian Community and a board member of Four Directions voting rights group (seen below); Michaelynn Hawk, Crow and the head of Indian People’s Action, in Butte (also seen below, exiting the building); and Bret Healy, a Four Directions consultant. Press was barred from the meeting.

The executive board didn’t vote on Wandering Medicine’s request. “They wouldn’t even bring it to the floor,” he said after the meeting. A spiritual leader as well as a Vietnam veteran wounded in action, he’s from a tribe that sent virtually all of its military-eligible members to fight that war—1,700 out of a population of 7,500, he recalled. He’s a man of gravitas and honor. “We’re on record as American patriots. We aren’t asking for anything other than voting, the most fundamental right of our democracy.”

The party did endorse an alternate resolution from the Montana Indian Democrats Council. This document promises Native Americans forms of voter registration they already have and “opportunities to improve” voting access. An early draft of the MIDC resolution provided to Wandering Medicine the day before the executive board meeting shows the word “equal” crossed out in a reference to enfranchisement and the word “equitable inked in above it.

[UPDATE: Shortly after this article was published on Indian Country Today Media Network, Montana Democratic Party spokesman Bryan Watt contacted ICTMN to note that the word “equality” does appear later in the MIDC resolution. However, ICTMN editors observed, again, the document hedges. That is, the word appears within a phrase, “continuing to fight for equality in voting access,” that seems to advocate a process that may result in equality, but falls short of advocating equality itself.]

OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux co-head of Four Directions, was furious. “I wasn’t there back when the treaties were written, but now I see how it worked. Party operatives and lawyers know perfectly well what means what. They twisted the English language and the law with intent to deceive us. They thought, ‘Those dumb Indians will never figure it out!’”

A Democratic Party official called “presumptuous” questions about the party’s actions and said the MIDC resolution was a strong endorsement of equality, approved unanimously by the executive board. “MIDC is party-appointed,” objected Hawk, a former member of the group. “They represent the Democratic Party, not the tribes.”

“That’s what’s been happening all along,” said Wandering Medicine. “Double talk and dragging out the process.”

The elephant in the room
Voter suppression is one activity where politicians reach across the aisle in the Treasure State. Opposing the Wandering Medicine plaintiffs—who are from the Northern Cheyenne, Fort Belknap and Crow reservations—are 14 Republican and Democratic officials. They teamed up before the 2012 election to fight the requested polling places. Their attorneys are a top-level bipartisan pair—DNC member Quintana is McCulloch’s lawyer, while South Dakota Republican Party secretary Sara Frankenstein represents the other defendants.

Keeping voting inconvenient for a minority group is a puzzling philosophical choice for the party of Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. It’s not legal, according the Justice Department. And it’s hardly strategic. In a state of hard-fought elections and razor-thin victory margins, Montana’s Native Americans make up 8 percent of the state’s population and register and vote overwhelmingly Democratic—more than 90 percent on some reservations. When Indian turnout was low in 2010, Democrats “took a shellacking,” and the GOP earned a supermajority in the state legislature, reported the Billings [Montana] Gazette. Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester has credited his one-percent 2012 win to Native voters. The state party’s spokesman would not explain its stance on the requested satellite offices.

When tribes first asked for the month-long access ahead of the 2012 election, McCulloch called satellite offices illegal—until she was corrected by then-attorney general, now governor, Steve Bullock. After that, McCulloch and Republican and Democratic county officials said it was too complicated to run two voting terminals in a county in advance of Election Day: one at the courthouse and one on the reservation. Recently, McCulloch’s elections deputy admitted in a Wandering Medicine deposition that their office has done nothing in the past 18 months to adjust the state’s voting computer program to smooth the process.

Montana Republican Congressman Steve Daines, who’s running for the Senate, may benefit from the Democrats’ position. He has been reaching out to tribes, with the appointment of a tribal liaison and backing for issues important to tribes.

Native voters may reconsider allegiances in the context of low party loyalty throughout Montana, said Main. “Politicians switch all the time. In the 2014 primary, one Democratic candidate is a former Republican lieutenant governor.” Main added, “Many of us Indians are Kennedy Democrats, voting to honor our grandparents’ admiration of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. We may rethink that.”

Semans foresaw Indians registering as Independents, saying, “It would do more good in the long run.”

Said Democratic state legislator Sharon Peregoy, who is Crow: “No one should take the Indian vote for granted.”

Party time!
Montana Democrats were cheerier on the night before their ill-fated meeting with Wandering Medicine. Ladies in party dresses and gents in trim suits showed up for their annual dinner, at Helena’s Lewis & Clark Fairgrounds. Senator Tester was one of the first luminaries to arrive, swaggering into the cavernous hall. The biggest, brawniest guy in any room, he also plays the trumpet and blared a credible version of the Star Spangled Banner for a thousand cheering Democrats.

Hollywood-handsome Governor Bullock (shown above with Wandering Medicine) and soldier-turned-Senator John Walsh were next. GOP kingmaker Karl Rove is directing attack ads against Walsh, a former National Guard adjutant general who led combat troops in Iraq. In a speech that evening, Walsh brushed off the smears, saying they twisted the record on his campaign for better armor for soldiers, and anyway he was tough enough to take it.

Big-tent Democratic ideals abounded, with a Blackfeet victory song by Jay Dusty Bull (left), a recollection of defending Jews against a Klan attack and a rousing keynote address by Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards. Politicians, including Walsh, shown below with Crow officials, discussed Native issues. 

Walsh has been visiting tribes and has spoken to tribal members about the controversial satellite offices. “It’s the right thing to do,” Walsh said. “I want to improve the situation on reservations, and communicating and working together means everyone’s lot will improve. Voting rights are very important and a big part of that.”

“The Democratic party is undercutting its candidates,” said Wandering Medicine. “It’s a stumbling block to progress—but only that.”

Wandering Medicine has a plan: “The Democrats had their opportunity. Now, I’ll ask the Republicans for a commitment. Will they support us Native plaintiffs and reject those fighting the satellite offices?”

Stay tuned.


c. Stephanie Woodard. Photographs by Joseph Zummo. This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting. It first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in March 2014. For a later version, go here.

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