Standing Rock Pitches Last-Ditch Fight for the Right to Vote in North Dakota

Standing Rock tribal members were skeptical of supporting Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Then Republicans attempted to stop them from voting at all.

To find Honorata Defender’s home on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, mention her name to whoever you can find walking down the main street of her tiny town. They’ll tell you to turn when you get to the powwow grounds and to take the paved road, rather than the gravel one. Drive until you see a hill, and look for her car. Her house has no number on it, and mail is not delivered there; it goes to a P.O. box instead.

As Defender put it, “We’ve never believed that a person can own land; it’s the land that owns us.” She added, “The concept of an address wasn’t a big deal.”

Defender was working at her job as a reporter for the Corson/Sioux County News-Messenger — the local paper that covers Standing Rock, including one of the key North Dakota counties that voted Democrat in 2012’s Senate election — when she learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld North Dakota’s voter ID law. The law will require each voter to present identification that displays a residential address, a major barrier for tribal members, since thousands of Native voters don’t use a home address. Defender’s home is on the South Dakota side of Standing Rock, but it is typical of the communities throughout the reservation.

The law is widely understood as the result of Republican state Congress members’ cynical mathematics. Six years ago, North Dakota Native Americans helped swing Democrat Heidi Heitkamp narrowly into the U.S. Senate by less than 3,000 votes. The next year, state Republicans introduced the new law. Tribes fought it in court up until October 9, when the Supreme Court declined to support their appeal.

“To have this happen is a slap in the face,” Defender said. “The U.S. government has been breaking their promises to us for over a century now.” The timing of the court’s decision left the state’s five federally recognized tribes with only a few short weeks to make sure that members who do not have home addresses — or do not know them — are able to participate in a highly contested election that will help decide which party controls Congress.

Horonata Defender at the voter drive headquarters.

Still: Jihan Hafiz

Tribal leaders contend that the state government has provided no meaningful support in ensuring that eligible Native voters will be able to overcome the new hurdle. On Thursday, North Dakota District Court Chief Judge Daniel Hovland denied a last-minute request for an emergency halt to enforcement of the new law in advance of the midterm elections. The suit, brought by the Spirit Lake tribe and six Native voters across the state, described the law’s implementation as “unplanned, untested, and broken.” Hovland contended that halting the law’s implementation so close to the election would sow even more confusion and chaos.

In response, a tenacious voter drive has emerged on Standing Rock, led by some of the key figures in the tribe’s 2016 fight against Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access pipeline, which drew thousands of pipeline opponents to resistance camps on the edge of the reservation. Ultimately, the pipeline was completed, and oil now flows under the Missouri River, long the primary drinking water source for the reservation.

The drive’s organizers see their efforts to counteract the new law as yet another demonstration of what Indigenous people are capable of when their right to exist is challenged. But it is not a campaign for Heitkamp, who remains a controversial figure on Standing Rock. “She did not support us on DAPL; she blindsided us,” explained Phyllis Young, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and get-out-the-vote organizer.

During the pipeline fight, Heitkamp issued statements in support of law enforcement, calling some of the protesters “violent and unlawful” less than two weeks after police hosed them down with icy water in below-freezing weather. Before that, she was a key supporter of ending the crude oil export ban, which helped fuel demand for a pipeline, and she has declined to stand up to the oil, gas, and coal industries in the face of the climate crisis. Notably, she was one of only two Democratic senators to vote in favor of confirming Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the stakes of having Native voices represented in the U.S. government are high. And in many ways, Heitkamp has been a rare advocate in Congress for Native Americans, spearheading efforts to address human trafficking and violence against women, and pushing for the creation of a commission to address issues facing Indigenous children.

“We abandoned her” after DAPL, said Young. “She is redeeming herself.”

The issue that has obsessed Defender as a reporter is the looming expiration in December of the Violence Against Women Act, which, among other things, offers a means for tribes to prosecute cases of domestic violence committed by non-Native people on the reservation, and includes funding to address an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. To Defender, VAWA’s future is inherently linked to the voter ID issue and an example of why it’s so important for tribal members to vote this election. It’s an issue Heitkamp has championed.

Defender was one of the earliest participants in the Dakota Access pipeline resistance, but she understands Heitkamp’s pipeline silence as a compromise to be expected from a Democrat in such an oil-soaked, Republican state. For Defender, the potential consequences for Native women of losing an advocate in the Senate are too great to place the weight of her political position on DAPL. But the even greater threat is that the new law will affirm a perception that Native people can remain invisible.

“My biggest fear is that this won’t work,” she said of the voter drive. “And that’ll push us back to feeling like we don’t matter, our voice doesn’t matter. We’re going back to when we weren’t citizens of this place even though we were here first.”

“My greatest hope is that we have the biggest Native American voting drive that we’ve ever had,” she said. “I’m hoping that, whoever wins, that Native Americans will be able to vote.”

Volunteers moving furniture at the voter drive headquarters.

Still: Jihan Hafiz

A Fail-Safe System

On a crisp October day, a week and a half after the Supreme Court decision, Young directed activities as a small house typically rented out by the tribe for birthday parties was transformed into a voter drive headquarters. Furniture that had been used by the Water Protectors Legal Collective, which provided representation to those arrested during the pipeline fight, was being pulled out of storage and repurposed. A staffer from the Lakota People’s Law Project, which also provided DAPL-related legal support, volunteered to field phone calls from the media. Posting the house’s address outside was on the agenda. It wasn’t that no address had ever been assigned to the building; the numbers had simply blown off on one of the prairie region’s windy days.

Long before she became involved in attempting to stop construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, Young co-founded the Women of All Red Nations arm of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, where she fought for the fulfillment of treaty rights and an end to forced sterilization of Indigenous women. When she ran communications during AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973, residents of the community were still not allowed to vote in county elections. In a community where people have always had to fight for survival under harmful U.S. government policies, one movement can quickly bleed into another, and nothing kicks people into gear like a U.S. government-induced crisis.

“It’s innate in us to defend our people,” said Jenn Ghost Bear, Young’s niece.

Young’s granddaughter, 27-year-old Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, the tribe’s external affairs director, said the get-out-the-vote effort was accelerated by the challenge to Native people’s right to participate. “Before, we were more hesitant on this election because the two Senate candidates, we have had issues with in the past,” she said. As Standing Rock’s first Miss Indian World in 2016, Finn used her platform to speak out against DAPL.

But although Heitkamp’s silence on the pipeline is a black mark on her record, her opponent’s reputation is worse. Republican Kevin Cramer, currently a U.S. representative, is notorious for a 2013 tirade against the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act during a meeting with a Native advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. According to the account of attendee Melissa Merrick, Cramer claimed that tribal governments were dysfunctional and that a non-Native man would not be able to get a fair trial on a reservation, adding that he wanted to “wring the tribal council’s neck and slam them against the wall,” in reference to a scandal related to the Spirit Lake tribe’s child welfare program. Since then, he’s become a co-sponsor of a House bill that would strengthen some provisions of VAWA, but he has failed to earn many Native people’s trust.

“Due to this law being placed on us, people now realized that if we don’t stand up, we will be oppressed further,” said Finn.

Many of the eligible voters the drive is targeting face challenges beyond just having the right address. According to the Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey, 38 percent of Sioux County’s population lives below the poverty line. Many people lack vehicles or cellphones.

Young and her team have been spreading word that the tribe has waived the fee for issuing tribal IDs, offering them for free. But to pick up the ID, residents have to go all the way to Fort Yates, nearly 100 miles away from Standing Rock’s western border. As a result, one of the voter drive’s key tasks has been to make it as easy as possible for people to get to the polls. Young has been busy tracking down drivers willing to take voters to Fort Yates to pick up the ID and, while they’re in town, submit an absentee ballot.

Also taking direction from Young were OJ and Barb Semans, founders of the Native voter rights group Four Directions. The organization is working with students at Claremont Graduate University to help the tribe set up a “fail-safe” system so that even voters who show up to polls without the right ID will be able to vote.

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger has encouraged eligible voters who lack a residential address to request one through the 911 system. Years ago, in an attempt to manage the challenges of providing emergency services to homes that lack addresses, the 911 system mapped residences on the state’s reservations. Yet Spirit Lake’s lawsuit underlines that the system is unreliable, “characterized by disarray, errors, confusion, and missing or conflicting addresses.” According to the suit, at least one individual submitted an absentee ballot using their 911-assigned address only to have it rejected. In some cases, coordinators, who are often law enforcement officers, have simply been unavailable to respond to requests. The state has argued in the past that an ID is necessary because other methods of proving voter eligibility are “self-authenticating.” Yet, to obtain a 911 address, callers simply describe where they live without providing any verification.

The case of 69-year-old plaintiff and Standing Rock member Terry Yellow Fat is an example of the chaotic situation facing reservation residents. According to the suit, a few years ago a sign reading “Buffalo Avenue” mysteriously showed up near his home. He figured Buffalo was his street. Still, he decided to request an address from the 911 coordinator, who happens to also be the county sheriff. To his surprise, the sheriff gave him an address on 92nd Street. Yet when he attempted to have UPS deliver a package there, the parcel never arrived. A delivery driver let him know that the address actually belongs to a nearby liquor store. The error has been perceived by some as a racist jab by the county’s lead law enforcement officer. Meanwhile, Yellow Fat’s ID lists his P.O. box, and his assigned 911 address is incorrect. How he’ll vote remains unclear.

Four Directions’ system would allow voters to identify where they live on a map and then be assigned an address on the spot. Jaeger has declined to endorse it.

OJ and Barb Semans at the voter drive headquarters.

Still: Jihan Hafiz

Unwelcome at the Polls

For the Semans, none of what’s happening in North Dakota is new. “Any time we’ve won an election, when there’s an election and their candidate loses, the first one they say committed fraud are Indians,” said OJ Semans.

Democrats haven’t consistently stood up for Native voters either. “They all looked down on us until they found out they could use our vote,” said Barb Semans.

American Indians were only made full citizens of the U.S. in 1924, but states have continued to find creative ways to deny Native people access to the ballot ever since. Until 1975 in South Dakota, for example, residents of counties considered unorganized under state law could not vote in county elections. Of course, the only counties that fit that description were Todd, Oglala (at the time known as Shannon), and Washabaugh, which are located within the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations.

That legacy is another barrier to getting Native voters to the polls. Defender said family members have told her stories of being turned away. “It put this feeling, this thought, into their heads that they shouldn’t even try to vote,” she said. “And that carried on into the next generation because they sit there and tell their kids, why bother?”

Four Directions started after another election in which Native voters tipped the scale. At the close of voting day in 2002, polls indicated that the Democratic Senate incumbent Tim Johnson had lost to his Republican opponent Jim Thune. But by morning, the scales had tipped by a meager 528 votes.

Barb Semans and her effort to get out the Native vote on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota was credited for the narrow win. At first, when Semans started working on the campaign, she said, “They insisted we do it the white way.” The campaign flew in door-knockers from out of town to ask for Native people’s vote. “They didn’t get one registered voter.”

Barb Semans told them that if a strange white guy knocks at your door on the reservation, “it’s either a church person trying to convert you or an FBI agent. I knew it wouldn’t work,” she said. “We had the white guys drive the van and the Indians knocked.”

“We were able to really get people excited,” said OJ Semans. “Why not elect someone that understood our treaties and got along with us? When you start talking about actually doing this to protect your treaties, people understood that and were willing to participate.”

The voter drive was effective, yet unexpected barriers continued to arise. The Semans said that on voting day, the auditor opened Rosebud’s poll in Central time, even though the reservation operated in Mountain time. The campaign demanded an extra hour and got it. Based on polls campaign workers took on the reservation, the couple estimates that the final hour may have tipped the scales. Altogether, hundreds of voters participated who had previously sat out the elections.

Since then, Four Directions has sued officials in South Dakota, Montana, and Nevada to open new and accessible offices where tribal members can obtain and submit absentee ballots without traveling exceedingly long distances. OJ Semans said they’ve developed a reputation. “If we say you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, and you disagree with us, we will sue you; we will take you to court until we win.”

A key factor has been relying on the communities where they’re working. “We don’t operate outside what the council wants us to do, and we don’t come here with a bunch of people to take over,” he said. “We look at the people here, and we utilize them as the leaders.”

The urgency to make sure that Native voices are included in the North Dakota election has been heightened by recent actions by the Trump administration and others. The administration recently announced that it would take the lands of the Mashpee Wampanoag in Massachusetts out of trust — something that has not been done since the termination era when the federal government systematically ended its relationships with numerous tribes in an attempt at forced assimilation. Meanwhile, the Indian Child Welfare Act, which protects Native children from being easily removed from their families, was recently declared unconstitutional by a Bush-appointed judge in Texas. And Native people have not forgotten that Trump advisers advocated privatizing reservation land.

Representation of Native interests has long been thin in Congress. There are currently only two Native members of Congress, both Republican representatives from Oklahoma. And, according to a Senate website, there have been only three Native senators, none of whom are in office.

But Native people are increasingly throwing around their electoral weight. In fact, 2018 is already a historic year for Native candidates, especially women. In New Mexico, Democrat Deb Haaland is expected to become the first Native woman ever to serve in Congress as a U.S. representative, and in Idaho, Democrat Paulette Jordan is vying to be the nation’s first Native American governor. South Dakota, too, has an array of Native candidates running for state offices.

But none of that suggests that the Semans’s work will get easier. As OJ Semans put it, “The more we fight, the more laws they come up with.” And in South Dakota, a court order requiring the state to maintain accessible offices for absentee voting on the Pine Ridge reservation expires this year. “We’ll probably have to start all over again.”

Floris White Bull, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe speaks with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp at a rally.

Still: Jihan Hafiz

Confronting Heitkamp

At the Prairie Knights Casino on the northeastern edge of the reservation, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp stood before a banquet hall filled with tribal members, asking for their vote on November 6. The quiet in the room deepened as Heitkamp named two young mothers who disappeared and were later found dead in the past two years, Savanna Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake tribe, and Olivia Lone Bear, of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. She described her work on the Violence Against Women Act and her efforts to pass Savanna’s Law, written to improve efforts in the criminal justice system to deal with the epidemic of disappearances of Indigenous women. Audience members applauded when she noted her vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment as a Supreme Court justice.

But there was one issue — the Dakota Access Pipeline — that she referenced only cryptically. “I’m humbled by the turnout because I know there’s been disappointment,” said Heitkamp. “Indian people are forgiving people.”

As the Heitkamp event ended, the senator shook hands with various constituents as she exited. Fifty-nine-year-old Charlotte Ramsey broke down as she asked the senator to do something about the meth epidemic. And Floris White Bull’s voice cracked as she described being locked in a dog kennel for protesting the pipeline. “I want to be able to support you, and I know that a lot of people of my community want to support you, but I feel let down,” she said. “You talk about giving us a voice, and you talk about our children, but respect our water was ignored.”

“What amends can be made?” she asked.

“We can’t go back to where we were, but we can move forward. That’s why I said I was grateful and humbled,” Heitkamp replied. “Unfortunately you don’t have the choice between someone who’s perfect or someone who isn’t. From your perspective, I’m not perfect, so you’ll have to decide whether I’m someone that you can support.”

White Bull listened intently, lips pursed, as Heitkamp continued, “I intend to do everything I can to improve housing, to improve education, to improve access to justice for women. I think the question is, How do you move forward?”

Asked by The Intercept what she would do in the future when called to stand up to the oil and gas industry, Heitkamp refused to respond. When The Intercept asked her to describe her plans to address the climate crisis, an aide rapidly ushered her out of the building.

Ladonna Allard, on whose land the first DAPL resistance camp was built, observed the exchange. She was unsurprised, she said. “I was really undecided about even coming, but when Heidi voted against Kavanaugh, I said OK.” She added, “Even though she did not support us when we needed her the most, right now she is the only choice at this moment. We must vote. We must show our power.”

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