Contract With Native America: Tribal colleges can help mobilize Native American vote

Nov 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 15-2: Reclaiming Native Health, Opinion
By David M. Gipp, Phil Baird, Dr. Janine Pease, and Tom Katus

RED POWER. Members of the Montana House are (left to right) Veronica Small-Eastman (Lodge Grass), Norma Bixby (Lame Deer), Jonathan Windy Boy (Box Elder), Joey Jayne (Arlee), Frank Smith (Poplar), and Carol Juneau (Browning). Not pictured is Montana Sen. Gerald Pease. Photo by George Lane / Independent Record

For the past 30 years, many close campaigns for the U.S. Congress and Senate in the Northern Plains States have been won and lost by the Native American vote. Native American tribes with major casinos have become significant national and state contributors to campaigns and parties in the past decade.

However, with some notable exceptions, the parties and politicians are still not responding sufficiently to Native American needs. Despite their potential voting and financial clout, Native Americans have not always been able to count on politicians to represent their interests once elected. Democrats often have taken the Native American vote for granted. With the exception of certain individual, progressive candidates, Republicans have regarded the Native American vote as either insignificant or not worth pursuing, assuming votes are going to the Democrats.

The educational and socio-economic conditions faced by Native Americans today continue to remain desperate. Tribal people can no longer assume that either major party will champion improvements in Native communities. For the 2004 federal and state elections, we must find a more effective way to harness the political capital of our people.

“A Contract with Native America” has to be developed, borrowing the phrase used by Newt Gingrich (R-GA), former Speaker of the U.S. House. Such a strategy paper should be presented to all parties and candidates who desire Native American votes or campaign contributions. Once candidates/parties support such a contract, they could receive financial and political support from the respective American Indian communities. In return, once these candidates are elected, Native Americans will be able to hold their feet to the fire to maintain their support of the Contract with Native America.

Election Records

To convince candidates and parties to support such a contract, we can document past election victories of candidates from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana that are attributable to the Native vote. While most of these victors have been Democrats, at least a few progressive Republicans have also benefited from solid support from Native American voters. Among the Democrats are U.S. Senators and Congressmen: George McGovern, James Abourezk, Tom Daschle, and Tim Johnson from South Dakota; Quentin Burdick, Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, and Earl Pomeroy from North Dakota; and John Melcher, Max Baucus, and Pat Williams from Montana. Republicans who have received significant Native American support include U.S. Senators Conrad Burns from Montana, Milton Young and Mark Andrews from North Dakota, and Governor George Mickelson, Jr. from South Dakota.

During this same 30-year period, the Native American population and voters have expanded dramatically in these states. The 2002 elections in Montana and South Dakota clearly demonstrated their impact. Seven Native Americans won state legislative seats in Montana. Approximately seven percent of the Montana population is Native American, and Native Americans now make up six percent of the Montana House and two percent of the Senate. These efforts have also impacted county elections. For example, American Indians now hold two of three county commissioner seats in Big Horn County, which encompasses the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations. These increases are due not only to the aforementioned population and voter growth but also to 15 years of grassroots organizing and redistricting legislative districts to provide Indian-majority districts.

In South Dakota in 2002, incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Johnson won the closest race for the U.S. Senate in the nation with a very slim 524-vote margin over popular Republican incumbent, U.S. Congressman John Thune. A solid Native American vote, approaching 90%, clearly put Johnson over the top. The Native vote is also affecting county elections in South Dakota. As a result, both Democratic and Republican candidates have begun to court the Native vote. Indian voters could have even more clout if the American Civil Liberties Union wins its appeal of the South Dakota Legislature’s re-districting plan; voters from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations could provide majorities in two districts.

Tribal College and University Roles

For a number of years, individuals with ties to the tribal colleges and universities have been directly involved in voter education/registration. In 1988 and 1990, Montana tribal college leaders presented workshops on voting rights at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Annual Conference. In 2002 and 2003 tribal colleges co-sponsored the “Native American Empowerment” Educational Stream at the conference. Oglala Lakota College was co-sponsor of the stream in 2002; United Tribes Technical College was co-sponsor in 2003.

Now we are proposing a process in which tribal colleges and universities would play the central role in educating their respective faculty and students in grassroots organizing over the coming months. We hope that many tribal colleges will modify political science, government, history, and social science research courses to include voter education activities.

Our plan also calls for expanding voter research, registration, and education. We would consider working under a non-profit, non-partisan umbrella organization, such as the Rural Ethnic Institute, as was done in North and South Dakota in previous years. Hopefully, some of the organizers could become field staff for parties or candidates who endorse the contract. After the election, we would enforce the Contract with Native America and expand non-Indian progressive support in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.

By developing a Contract with Native America, getting the contract endorsed by the parties and candidates, and mobilizing the largest Native American turnout in history in November 2004, we can empower all Native Americans including those involved with tribal colleges and universities.

David Gipp (Hunkpapa Lakota) is president of United Tribes Technical College (UTTC). Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota) is the dean of vocational and academic programs at UTTC. Dr. Janine Pease (Crow/Hidatsa) is vice president for American Indian affairs at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT, and was presiding officer for the Montana Commission on Districting and Apportionment from 1999 to 2003. Tom Katus is the director of the Rural Ethnic Institute, a long-time grassroots activist, and a consultant for several tribal colleges. For more information, contact Tom Katus,

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