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CSKT tribal leader talks with VP Harris, Secretary Haaland, about voting rights

(Photo by @vp and Twitter)

(Daily Montanan) Confederated Salish and Kootenai Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said she was filled with hope after a discussion last week with Vice President Kamala Harris and Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about Native American voting rights.

Longtime voting advocate Fyant still remembers how excited she was to vote the first time. She thought about it all day, and even so, she almost arrived too late. She was in Kansas at the time attending college. 

“But I did end up making it to the polls,” Fyant said. “I remember I voted for Jimmy Carter. And I’ve voted in every election since then.”

The federal and local governments of the U.S. have a long history of denying Native American and Alaskan Native tribal members the right to vote.

This year, the Montana Legislature eliminated same day voter registration, changed voter ID requirements and limited ballot collection. Republican proponents of those changes argued the measures were necessary to protect the security of the vote.

Advocates for the Native American vote declared the laws had the potential to deter voters who live on reservations and in rural areas. Fyant was among those also frustrated the legislature did not fix the longstanding lack of access to polling places for people living on reservations. 

She said it’s no wonder people feel disillusioned. 

“For four years, we’ve been just pushed down and disenfranchised,” Fyant said. “Ridiculed.”

However, after the meeting with Harris, Haaland and other tribal leaders, Fyant said she felt the country was about to begin an era similar to the 1960s, when the civil rights movement helped to end voting barriers, such as poll taxes and literacy requirements.

Fyant’s fellow tribal leaders included Oglala Lakota President Kevin Killer; Allie Young, Dine or Navajo Nation, and founder of Protect the Sacred; Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives; and Prairie Rose Seminole, citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara and co-founder of the North Dakota Native American Caucus. 

Young, 31, told Native News Online that she was impressed by Harris’ preparedness for the meeting.

“Sometimes, we come into these rooms, and we have to do sort of like a Native history lesson at the beginning and put everything into context. But she came in thoroughly prepped,” Young said. “It allowed us to really jump into the concerns that we have.”

In a statement released by the White House before the meeting, Harris highlighted how one in three Native Americans who are eligible to vote are not yet registered and attributed that to the lack of access to resources and facilities. 

“In Montana and North Dakota, for example, I’ve heard stories about it taking at least one hour each way to get to the polling location and then get home,” Harris said. “God forbid there’s a snowstorm and what that might mean in terms of the encumbrances on the ability of people to exercise their right to vote.”

In the statement, Harris pushed for Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act, which would expand voting rights.

Fyant spoke after the meeting to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about the possible reintroduction of the Native American Voting Rights Act, which would create and protect polling places on reservations for federal elections. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes tried to get a satellite election office in Hot Springs for the 2020 election, but Sanders County was not able to provide one.

Prior to the latest wave of election laws, CSKT was already in court over the 2018 Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act, which limited how many ballots a person could drop off at a polling place and imposed fines against those that violated the law. In September 2020, Yellowstone County District Judge Jessica Fehr ruled BIPA was unconstitutional.

The Legislature passed a similar bill this year; House Bill 530 made it illegal for people to receive a financial benefit for collecting ballots, such as those employed to Get Out the Vote.

Western Native Voice is challenging the new law in court.

In a separate court case, the Montana Democratic Party is suing over the voter ID law and the elimination of same day registration, legislation that also obstructs Native American voters, said Keaton Sunchild, political director for Western Native Voice. For example, the law requires an identification card to have a person’s physical address, but people on reservations sometimes have just a P.O. box, said Sunchild.

Sunchild, who announced his candidacy for governor in June, tried to convince legislators this session to create Montana’s own American Indian Voting Rights Act. Among other things, he said it would have made exceptions for tribal members living on reservations to use an ID with a mailing address, such as a P.O. box, to register to vote, since not all homes on reservations have street addresses.

“We tried to sell it as: You did all these things that are going to make it really hard for a lot of people to vote,” Sunchild said. “But you can kind of make it easier while still protecting the election.”

The bill did not become law. 

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Fyant herself was a “Get Out the Vote” coordinator in the 1990s. She would register people to vote, give rides to the polls, and collect ballots. At the time, she was paid $500 for her work. The tribe now pays closer to about $5,000, but the work remains similar.

In the meeting with Harris, Haaland and the other tribal leaders, Fyant said the conversation turned to what kind of message should be used to engage especially younger Native Americans in the election process. 

“It was just unanimous,” Fyant said. “We just need to give our youth hope.”

She said when she got back to Montana, she was with her granddaughter and overheard her playing with her dolls and talking about going to see the vice president. 

“That’s really what it’s about; it’s giving our young people hope and the realization that we can do things now,” Fyant said.

When Fyant left the meeting with Harris and Haaland, Harris told Fyant it was the beginning of a long relationship. Just a few days after getting back from D.C., Fyant began dealing with wildfires on the Flathead Nation.

“Then, two days ago, I got a voicemail from Secretary Haaland, expressing her sadness over the loss of 20 structures on our reservation,” Fyant told the Daily Montanan last Wednesday.