Up until a few weeks ago, Montana law forbade the community feeds that Patrick Yawakie was organizing across the state’s windswept Native American reservations. The gatherings offer free food and voting information alongside the opportunity to drop off an absentee ballot.
A bill passed last year by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature banned the collection of ballots by paid workers – and Mr. Yawakie’s for-profit company, Red Medicine LLC, works under contract for the Democratic Party. Other legislation had created new requirements for voter identification and eliminated voter registration for those casting ballots on election day.
But weeks before the Nov. 8 midterm elections, those laws were overturned after a collection of tribal nations led a coalition of public interest groups and youth advocacy organizations in challenging their constitutionality. In its ruling, a Montana district court said they were intentionally discriminatory.
Soon after, Mr. Yawakie hosted the first of nine community feeds in the weeks leading up to the midterms on the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations. In total, he expects to serve more than 1,000 Indian tacos . Made with frybread and meat, the tacos are a culinary draw that brings people out. They also carry symbolic meaning, the frybread made with flour and salt, commodities that once formed part of government rations given to Native Americans. A quarter of the Blackfeet died of starvation in 1884, when bison were hunted to near-extinction.
“Frybread is a survival food,” Mr. Yawakie said. “It’s a representation that we’re still here.”
So, too, is the fight for voting access.
The Montana laws, which Republican legislators have vowed to revive, formed part of a broader pattern of legislation this year that advocates say is designed to protect election security but critics call voter suppression.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based policy institute, has pointed to Montana as part of a “nationwide surge in voter suppression legislation instigated by state legislators embracing former president Donald Trump’s Big Lie of a ‘stolen’ election.” The centre has tabulated 42 restrictive voting laws passed by 21 states since January 2021.
Tribal groups have become important actors in challenging those laws.
Over the past few years, Indigenous lawyers have fought such legislation in Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Matthew Campbell, deputy director of the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF, counts a success rate of more than 90 per cent for “the lawsuits that get brought within Indian country – usually because the violations are so egregious.”
The struggle against those laws, he said, amounts to a repudiation of a history in which “native people have been made to feel like they shouldn’t be participating within the United States democracy.”
NARF was among the advocates for the Native American Voting Rights Act, part of broader legislation that would have added protection for voting rights. Its failure to pass was a major defeat for the Joe Biden administration’s first two years.
That has left a state-by-state battle for election access.
On the Blackfeet reservation, many houses have no street addresses, making home postal delivery impossible. Fierce winter storms can impede travel, with winds that can blow over a semi-trailer. Some Blackfeet members live 112 kilometres from the county administrative seat. So the nation has fought to maintain ballot collection, along with drop-boxes and voting registration on the reservation.
“When you deny those ways of voting, they cause the Native American community to have less ability to vote,” said Blackfeet managing attorney Dawn Gray.
Still, she lamented that, despite recent court wins, election-day voter registration is not available this year in Browning, the tribal seat. It is only available in Cut Bank, 55 kilometres away.
“It makes me upset,” she said. “It’s like, I don’t even want to vote any more.”
Backers of the Montana legislation argued they wanted to combat election fraud, but court testimony showed that in the past 40 years, the state has seen just one conviction for voter fraud.
Ms. Gray suspects political motivation instead. Glacier County, which contains much of the Blackfeet reservation, typically votes Democrat. Hamper the ability of Indigenous people to vote, and an election can swing “more in favour of Republicans,” she said.
In North Dakota, the legislature brought in new voter identification requirements after the 2012 election of Heidi Heitkamp – a Democrat who had significant backing from the Native American community – as a U.S. senator. Arizona, too, has sought to restrict voting access after “a surge in voter turnout on tribal land helped Joe Biden to victory,” wrote Ms. Heitkamp earlier this year. (She lost her seat in 2018.)
Greg Hertz, a Republican Montana senator, denied any effort to discriminate. Montana, he noted, also has many non-Indigenous residents in distant rural areas.
“The constitution of Montana says the legislature has authority to basically legislate the time and the place where you vote and the integrity of the election,” he said. He wants to see a Supreme Court appeal of the court’s recent decision to overturn state laws. “We didn’t do anything that was abusive to the voter.”
Even conservative Native Americans say they fear what comes next. “Everybody is looking at 2024, that presidential election,” said K. Webb Galbreath, a Republican former Marine who is now the Blackfeet tribal operation manager.
In 2020, he and others formed a team that fanned out across the 6,000-square-kilometre reservation to collect ballots and guard ballot boxes.
He is staggered at the efforts required to maintain voting access. Even before Native Americans were granted the right to vote in 1924, two Blackfeet brothers died fighting in the First World War, he said. “They were defending that right of freedom.” he said.
Nearly a century later, “we should not have to worry about that,” he said. “In my mind, we’re the greatest country in the world,” he added. But “if you don’t have free and fair elections, you’re no better than a banana republic.”