Native Americans Sue over Montana Voting

The Montana tribes' voting rights lawsuit is delivered to U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, on October 10 by (right to left) attorney Steven Sandven; former Fort Belknap tribal chair William Main; Tom Rodgers of Carlyle Consulting; Four Directions consultant Bret Healy; Four Directions head O.J. Semans; Michaelynn Hawk of Indian People's Action; plaintiff Marty Other Bull of the Crow Tribe; Blackfeet tribal member Annie Many Hides, mother of fallen soldier U.S. Army Spc. Antonio C. Burnside; and Kevin Rodgers of Carlyle Consulting.
The Montana tribes' voting rights lawsuit is delivered to U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, on October 10 by (right to left) attorney Steven Sandven; former Fort Belknap tribal chair William Main; Tom Rodgers of Carlyle Consulting; Four Directions consultant Bret Healy; Four Directions head O.J. Semans; Michaelynn Hawk of Indian People's Action; plaintiff Marty Other Bull of the Crow Tribe; Blackfeet tribal member Annie Many Hides, mother of fallen soldier U.S. Army Spc. Antonio C. Burnside; and Kevin Rodgers of Carlyle Consulting.

With control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, a Native American voting rights hearing in U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, later this week is shaping up to be a riveting spectacle. A surprising array of Democrats and Republicans are ranged against the 16 tribal members who have sued for early-voting offices on their reservations.

“It’s the poorest of the poor versus the billionaires,” said Tom Rodgers, a member the Blackfeet, a Montana tribe.

In late August, Republican powerbroker Karl Rove told a meeting of the country’s super-rich that Montana Democrat Jon Tester’s Senate seat was one of the Republican Party’s best shots at Senate control, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The neck-and-neck race between Tester and Republican challenger U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg was important then. It’s even more so today, now that Missouri appears to be off the Republican list, following remarks about “legitimate rape” by the party’s candidate, Todd Akin.

“Millions are flowing into Montana to influence the Senate race,” said Rodgers, who was the whistleblower in the Jack Abramoff scandal. “And now we have Indians suing for voting rights.”

In the federal suit, filed October 10, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribal members say that without satellite early-voting offices on their reservations, they must drive long distances to early-vote or late-register in their county seat. This is a burden for destitute tribal members who may not have vehicles or gas money for the trip, and the unequal access is illegal and unconstitutional, they say.

South Dakota tribes have also faced similar early-voting issues; a recent federal-court win by the Oglalas of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation means that this year, for the first time, they have on their reservation as many days of early voting as other South Dakotans do. 

Improved ballot-box access would have real and immediate results, said a local Native American official in Montana.

“With satellite stations in our communities, we could exercise our right to vote, but also important, we could register voters,” said Rosebud County commissioner Danny Sioux, a Northern Cheyenne. “We could explain voters’ rights. On the Northern Cheyenne reservation alone, our current 400 ‘active’ voters could become 3,000 and impact elections all the way up to the federal level.”

Presiding over the hearing later this week will be Chief U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull, a Republican who achieved national prominence earlier this year by forwarding a crude email about President Obama’s mother. After the message became public, Cebull denied accusations of racism, and promised local newspapers that he would no longer send non-work-related emails from his office computer.

The lead defendant is a Democrat: Montana’s top election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who is running for re-election.  McCulloch recently told the Associated Press that the Native voters’ claim “has merit,” but they should have started talking to her about it a year ago. As it was, the talks were moving into their sixth month when tribal members filed suit.

On the county level, election officials from both parties failed  to set up satellite early-voting offices, and the suit names them  as well. “I don’t care if they’re white, black or Chinese,” Rosebud County elections official Geraldine Custer, a Republican, told Indian Country Today, the national Native-owned newsmagazine. “I just don’t have the staff. It’s not about race. I’m just swamped.” (And, yes, she says her husband is a distant relative of that Custer, whom Indians helped into history in Montana in 1876.)

The negotiations for reservation early-voting offices began May 2 with a request from the Blackfeet Nation. Documents filed with the lawsuit indicate that in July, the secretary of state’s legal counsel, Jorge Quintana, wrote to tribal advisors that such offices were prohibited in Montana.

Then McCulloch consulted with the state’s attorney general and head lawman, Steve Bullock, a Democrat running for governor. Bullock advised her on August 17 that the state already has forms of satellite voting. On August 28, McCulloch changed course, issuing an advisory saying the facilities were legal and doable, but discretionary.

McCulloh told the counties. She didn’t tell the tribes.

Terri L. McCoy, the secretary of state’s communications director, defended the failure to inform the tribes in an email.”This is a local county issue,” she wrote.

Most counties with Indian reservations apparently shelved the secretary of state’s advisory without informing the tribes within their borders, said O.J. Semans, the Lakota director of Four Directions, a voting-rights group advising the tribes. Leaders of the suing tribes said they didn’t learn until mid-September that satellite early voting was even a possibility for their people. In the end, only Glacier County provided satellite early voting and registration, for the Blackfeet.

The Montana Democratic Party appears to be in an awkward spot. Spokesman Chris Saeger described efforts to improve ballot-box access in all forms: on and off reservations, in person and by mail, during the early voting period and on Election Day. “We’re working hard to ensure all Montanans have greater access to polling locations,” Saeger said.

The Montana Republican Party did not respond to requests for a comment.

Historically, the Democratic Party has been hospitable to Indians, said Glacier County Commission chair Michael DesRosier, a Blackfeet tribal member. “Our Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, and Senator Tester have opened many doors and shown they truly recognize us.”

What does voting mean to Native people? “When we come out to vote, more people will have to start to deal with us—about health care for our veterans, access to public transportation and more,” said DesRosier. “Otherwise, all they recognize is our ‘plight.'”

Danny  Sioux noted that native people have the highest rate of military enlistment of any group in the country, according to the Defense Department.

“When we went to war, whose freedom were we fighting for?” asked Sioux. “Ours? Or just yours?”


On October 30, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Richard Cebull denied the Montana tribal members’ emergency request for early-voting polling places on three reservations— Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Fort Belknap. Cebull’s decision postponed resolution of this long-contested question until after the 2012 national election. The judge’s order was formally filed on Election Day, November 6.

On a fourth reservation, Blackfeet tribal members experienced an Election Day that included voter intimidation by a representative of the now-failed Senate campaign of Dennis Rehberg. Neither Rehberg’s campaign headquarters nor his press representative responded to requests for a comment on the operative’s actions, which a Blackfeet official and two election observers described as improperly asking voters for identification and otherwise frightening and angering them. Toward evening, ballots ran out in precincts around the reservation, and some Blackfeet waited as much as two hours for additional ballots to be delivered. Faced with the delays and scare tactics, other tribal members left polling stations without having cast ballots at all.

In his denial of the tribal request for early voting stations, Cebull acknowledged that Native American voters were given unequal access, but said the inequality was not sufficient to warrant satellite early voting. “I’m not arguing,” Cebull said, “that the opportunity is as equal to [sic] Indian persons as it is to non-Indians.” However, the judge said, he wanted proof that Native Americans couldn’t elect “representatives of their choice.”

“When I read the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, I don’t see an asterisk on the word ‘equal’ and a note that it has degrees,” said Greg Lembrich, a senior associate with the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and legal director of Four Directions, a voting-rights group advising the Montana tribes and tribal members. “Equal means equal.”

Four Directions is appealing Cebull’s order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, according to the group’s attorney, Steven D. Sandven. Sara Frankenstein, attorney for most of the Montana officials named as defendants in the suit, called the appeal “frivolous” and likely to be dismissed since the election was already over.

Lembrich disagreed, saying that when behavior is likely to be repeated, as it is in this case, judges will hear a complaint.


Stephanie Woodard

Stephanie Woodard

Stephanie Woodard, a member of 100Reporters, is an investigative journalist focusing on Native issues. She worked as an editor for over 20 years, and is currently a correspondent for Native-owned newsmagazine Indian Country Today. She has received Folio awards, as well as the Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Reporting.
Stephanie Woodard

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  1. yes i will comment native AMErican tribes are considered sovereign nations and they use that to there benefit all the friggin time only when there is a chance to sue and get money or publicity do they act like they are part of this country they always claim independance except on the 3rd of every month when every last one of them has there hand out for money from good old uncle sam so what is it are you guys a sovereign nation or are you americans that should be held to the same laws everyone else is you cant have your cake and eat it to also i am a montana resident and part native and it pisses me off that native americans are only american when they want to be hell they have there own fbi there own ids and there own laws so GET A CLUE just because one of my ancestors killed one of yours or took land in a deal gone bad does not mean i should have to keep paying for you to be lazy and ignorant and sue crazy
    Sovereign nation : A sovereign nation is a country that has the power to do everything possible to govern itself, without the interference of a foreign country or influence. A sovereign nation can make its own laws, decide on what taxes to impose, whether to go to war, and when it comes to deciding on whether it should form treaties with foreign nations.

    • Native Americans were the last minority group to get the right to vote. They are not asking for you to pay for their food or housing here. They are simply asking that they have voting booths in a place that they can use them. The have voting areas all around the United States and we make special arrangements for those who are handicapped, overseas, unable to vote during the weekday… Why are you so angry that they want the right to have their voices heard? BTW Montana resident no one is saying you stole our land let us vote now… they are saying give us a right to participate in the government- Which I believe your argument is that they don’t unless we are asking for welfare? Actually your argument is kind of confusing… It sounds more like bigotry than logical and helpful…Please explain why you are so angry about voting rights for Native Americans…

      • i am angry that native americans act like something is owed all the time the government barely has any control on what happens within reservation borders so why should they pay to put voting booths on reservations almost any native you interview particulary the younger generation are resentful of government control so why even bother to vote did you not see my sovereign nation part also the average american cant just stroll on the res and start making decisions and demands should i sue because i cant go on the res and buy groceries at a cheaper price no i just stay out of there affairs just like they should stay out of ours if they want to vote that bad vote to dissolve the whole sovereign nation legislation and become a part of the country then maybe they would have some merit in the court of law also i am not spouting bigotry i am spouting facts i am not being rascist i am stating a frustrtaion that people share everyday but are to scared to voice for fear of being called a rascist or accused of bigotry i did not call natives prairie hoppers or prairie n@@@@ers or anyother nontolerant name i was just stating facts if you want logical and helpful look up the constitution and how it pertains to natives look up sovereign nation look up how much they get from the united states government then claim we rule ourselves then get back to me

        • I’m native american and i dont act like anything is owed to me. It’s not my fault i was born a member of a federally recognized tribe. The u.s. government made treaties with tribes long ago and agreed to “repay” their people until the end of time. So it’s none of our faults that we get the governments money you idiot!

          • it is your fault IF you gladley except the handout then try to act like you guys should be treated different the way i see it you fought a war you lost suck it up i may not agree fully with what the other guy was saying however native americans cant have their cake and eat it to i do whi9ch is what it seems like has been happening alot lately but the rest of his statements are so negative you cant act like an adult while throwing a tantrum notbeingrascist

          • Once again, I don’t expect to be treated differently. I was obviously not alive during the war you refer to so that doesn’t concern us. However, the “handouts” were part of an agreement that is still valid. Life is not fair so quit worrying about other people and just worry about yourself. R

          • Well if you knew what you were talking about you would know it is everyone’s business. The government gives you money. Where does the money come from? TAXES! So we pay for Native Americans to get handouts. It is our business when you are receiving our money. We complain about this just like people that live on welfare. Interesting how its kind of the same thing. You get money for doing nothing.

    • Um. Earth. to. Guest. We killed several million of them, attempted to destroy their heritage, and made way more than “a couple bad deals” with them. For Christ’s sake, we waged biological warfare on them, and NOW we say they can’t vote because they’re too far away? I’d stay away from me too! I swear, the idiots in Washington can’t even give them that much? Despite still pretty much having them within the boundaries of our laws and country? If you combine this with all of the police brutality, and self interested politicians, America is becoming a system that I can see my grandchildren having to overthrow- and that is really, really scary.

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