Importance of voting includes the reservations

Donna Crane
Share this article:

Molly Hensley-Clancy of BuzzFeed News continues a report on difficulties of voting and remembrances of the Standings Rock Indian Reservations in Fort Yates, N.D..

“At least she’s here,” said a tribal health care worker named Jana about U.S. senator Heidi Heitkam. Jana said it was important that Heitkamp had visited the tribe’s chronically-underfunded health center.

“To me, (Heitkamp) puts the most effort into coming here,” said Chance Eagle, a get-out-the-vote worker. “Most of the other ones don’t show. I’d rather have her come down here, at least, and say the truth, rather than come here and say one thing and do another.”

“This election, people in Standing Rock have serious issues they want Heitkamp to address. The tribal health care center needs better funding, they said, especially to help deal with diabetes, a rampant problem on the reservation. They believe the Trump administration has been steadily infringing on tribal sovereignty.

“But most said they were voting this election for something bigger than a party. They wanted to prove to the state legislature that efforts to suppress the Native vote wouldn’t work.

“They realized from senator Heitkamp’s 2012 election that when the tribes stand united, they can swing the vote,” said Jerl Thompson, who works at the tribal college in Fort Yates. “It’s a perfect time this election to stand united and say, ‘We need to be at the table.’

“‘I don’t care who you vote for — I just care that you vote,’ Heitkamp told a crowd gathered at the tribal headquarters in Fort Yates (recently). “Because if every person on Standing Rock votes, you will not be invisible.’

“Driving out of Bismarck (N.D.), a web of strip malls, billboards, and low-slung buildings, the Standing Rock reservation comes as a breath of relief. Buffalo dot the hills that slope away from the river and domed stone buttes emerge from the multicolored prairie, where this time of year the grass is painted brown and red.

“If you know where to look, just before you enter the reservation, you can see a long brown scar in the land, a dark band that crosses the grasses into the horizon: The mark of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

‘“Heitkamp ‘walked away’ from Native Americans during the DAPL protests, said Loretta Bad Heart Bull, a tribal elder. ‘That was it for me. But I still voted for her. We’re still going to be here anyway — we’re not going to lay down and die.’

“Chance Eagle had spent his Friday morning driving out into the countryside to pick up voters. He got ‘pretty far out there,’ he said — out where many streets don’t have names and almost no one has an address.

“Now he was on another mission: Get his sister to vote. Eagle jumped into his pickup truck and set out from the yellow (activist headquarters) house to his sister’s place in Fort Yates, his young son sitting in the backseat, playing with a blue, stuffed toy.

“A woman named Stevie Gray Bull met Eagle in the driveway. Eagle’s sister, Lillian, wasn’t there — she’d gone to another house. There was, of course, no address that they knew of, so Gray Bull pointed out the house to him: Just there, around the corner. The green one.

“Before Eagle left, Gray Bull gestured to her truck: It hadn’t been running well.

“‘I can help you fix it,” Eagle told her. ‘If you vote.’

“That had been his strategy lately, with the days ticking down to the election: Trading favors for votes. They say, ‘Bro, can you come put up this fence?’ I say, ‘I can if you vote.’

“Eagle helped his cousin give his horse tranquilizer shots. His cousin was hanging around his house with co-workers, and he got them all to go fill out absentee ballots. ‘That was nine all in one shot,’ Eagle said.

“Eagle got back into his truck and drove around the corner, maneuvering around a pair of rez dogs running loose in the streets, past a low house with its windows boarded up. The leaves had fallen off the trees, and their spiny branches were bare. His sister wasn’t at that house, either, so he tried a third. She wasn’t a regular voter, but she promised Eagle she’d vote today.

“Lillian Eagle completes an absentee mail ballot application form before being given her mail-in ballot at the Sioux County Courthouse.

“Lillian Eagle completes an absentee mail ballot application form before being given her mail-in ballot at the Sioux County Courthouse.

“When Eagle finally brought his sister into City Hall, Mary Jo Brave Bull, another Four Directions worker, exclaimed in excitement.

“‘That’s 39!’ she said. ‘Thirty-nine people today, 40 yesterday.’

“Back at the yellow house, many of the Four Directions workers finished the day by smoking cigarettes in the yard, in front of a banner that read, ‘Standing Rock Will Vote.’ Signs like that were up all over the reservation — on a roadside, in front of the casino. The period was important: It felt like a declaration.

“Many of the workers said they hadn’t voted before, at least not often.

“Casey Dogskin, who works at the casino, said she didn’t follow politics; besides Heitkamp, she hadn’t recognized any of the names on the ballot when she voted absentee.

“So why vote?

“Dogskin thought about that. ‘Cause it counts,’ she said.”

Leave a Reply