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August 23, 2011

For Blackfeet, Fracking Has Too Much Economic Upside

Nearly all the Blackfeet Nation’s 1.5 million acres are leased for oil and gas exploration, but on the west the tracts adjoin Glacier National Park, a bastion of pristine nature that is widely regarded as the antithesis of development and industrialization.

A 2006 resolution by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council allows Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. to drill exploratory wells on a 40,000-acre tract adjoining the Park’s eastern boundary, according to the Missoula, Montana Missoulian.

The region may contain some 109 million barrels of oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas as part of the Bakken Shale formation-related oil boom not only in Montana but also in in North Dakota, where the Three Affiliated Tribes reap millions from wells that tap the formation.

Anschutz is actively looking for oil and gas via exploratory wells, all of which are to be hydraulically fractured, according to Grinnell Day Chief, head of the Blackfeet Oil and Gas Bureau as quoted in HungryHorseNews.com.

The hydraulic process, colloquially termed “fracking,” involves pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and chemicals under high pressure into the earth, creating fissures that allow oil and gas to be extracted.

Twenty-five exploratory wells have been drilled to date this year on the reservation and 34 more are planned by summer’s end, with the number expected to double in 2012, Day Chief said.

Environmental concerns are largely unfounded and tribal ordinances are in place to protect natural resources, he said.

“Oil and gas exploration has really exploded across Indian country in recent years because of the new horizontal drilling technology,” David Spotted Eagle Jr., with the Blackfeet Environmental Office’s Brownfields Program, told the Missoulian. “We have zero tolerance for spills and releases because we’ve reached a point where ignorance is no longer an excuse.”

With reservation unemployment at about 70 percent and a tight tribal budget, the Blackfeet could reap substantial benefits if wells go into production, but some tribal members believe more environmentally friendly options may be available.

Read more @ Indian Country Today Media Network.comFor Blackfeet, Fracking Has Too Much Economic Upside - Indian Country Today Media Network.com.

January 6, 2012

Wildfires on Blackfeet Nation Land Destroy Homes, Land

Dozens of firefighters were conducting mop-up operations on January 5 after two massive wildfires blazed for more than 15 hours through thousands of acres in Blackfeet Nation territory, destroying homes and scorching agricultural land on one of the less prosperous reservations in the country.

There were no deaths or injuries, Wayne Smith, the Blackfeet Nation’s director of communications, said. By midday Thursday, Blackfeet firefighters joined by emergency personnel from the area surrounding Browning had contained more than 85 percent of the fire. It took massive numbers of people and resources to quell the blaze in less than 24 hours. “There were close to 85 emergency personnel on the fire, as well as 25 engines, 15 water tanks and a number of other kinds of heavy equipment, including graders,” Smith said. “The fire was spreading really quickly. We had 30-40 mph winds with 60 mph gusts and some places reported higher than 60–70 mph gusts.”

Early reports said that up to seven fires had erupted outside of the city of Browning. The Blackfeet Nation opened its main Tribal Business Office Wednesday night for those in need of emergency shelter, Smith said. KRTV News reported that Shannon Augare, a Montana State Senator from Browning, posted on his Twitter account Wednesday night that “several families, including mine have evacuated from our homes in Blackfeet Country. An estimated 5 massive fires are in progress. Local police, fire and EMS crews are everywhere. Responding where they are able to. Please keep these individuals in your prayers.” Augare told people that the situation was “very scary” and advised them to stay indoors unless they were directly threatened.

Emergency personnel ended up battling two massive blazes dubbed the Boy Fire and the Y Fire, which erupted around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, January 4. The Boy Fire north of Browning burned through approximately 12,000 acres and the Y Fire south of the city destroyed around 6,000 acres, including homes, barns and other structures, Smith said.

Around 200 people were evacuated from the Indian Boarding School, including the students and residents from around a dozen nearby homes, Smith said. The students were evacuated within 20 minutes after the fire was reported, and brought to the Blackfeet Tribal Administration office. Parents were notified to pick up their children there, said Smith.

Already an economically depressed area – tribal members received a $75 Christmas per capita payment – tribal council members met throughout the day on Thursday to plan for dealing with the disaster. “Right now the tribal council is meeting with BIA officials and the Emergency Disaster Coordinator to assess all the damage that was done by the fires,” said Mike Kittson, Blackfeet citizen and tribal council liaison. Kittson said he had seen the fire Wednesday night from his home, which is some 20 miles away from the fire. “We thought the worst,” he said. The air was dry and winds were gusting up to 70 mph, Kittson said. “We started off having a good spring but by the end of summer we were really dry. For northwest Montana we should have had a decent amount of snow by now, but we’re still struggling to see some snow.”

The Great Falls Tribune reported that the fire was caused by a downed Glacier Electric Cooperative line. Virginia Harman, manager of communications for GEC told the Tribune that the line broke at an insulator and sparked the fire at the point where the line hit the ground. She said the line was downed due to high winds and possibly debris. No poles or other GEC structures came down at the site.

Smith said that an investigation is ongoing about how many homes and other structures were destroyed and how many families have been left homeless. The Blackfeet Nation has set up a donation fund for the immediate future to help people most affected by the fire. Donations can be sent to Fire Relief and addressed to the Blackfeet Nation Tribal Headquarters, P.O. Box 850, Browning, Montana, 59417.

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January 26, 2012

Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

Bear River Offering Handed to Carol Murray Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

Carol Murray in a stand up warbonnet receives the offering (likits'staksin) to honor those killed from her brother on horseback.

“We need to remember an unjustified slaughter of mostly women, children and elderly people on that fateful day of January 23, 1870,” said traditional elder Narcisse Blood on January 25, two days after commemoration activities were held. He went on to say that the day is “conveniently excluded from history books as it is a shameful act of genocide that failed. This commemoration goes a long way to begin our healing.”

For the last 20 years Blackfeet Community College has hosted the Bear River Massacre Commemoration Activities on the anniversary of the event. Hundreds of community members have gone to the snowy bluffs overlooking the Marias River in Montana and held healing ceremonies.

Bear River Carol Murray Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

Carol Murray in a stand up warbonnet.

The search for the truth about what happened began with four students named Carol and John Murray, and GG and Melinda Kipp in the early 80s. They went to two elders, Annie Calf Robe Green and Willie Running Crane. The students saw the difficulty the elders had in sharing the Indian side of the story. The elders closed the doors and had the curtains drawn before they talked.

Annie spoke of a story her grandmother had told about a little girl who heard the horses whimpering. At the same time bullets starting flying into the tipi hitting the tipi poles at the top and rapidly spraying bullets all the way down to the ground.  The little girl was so frightened she ran to the riverbank and dug a hole. She stayed hidden until the screams and sounds died down. When she peeked out she saw a huge fire. Soldiers were throwing little boys’ bodies into it.

Bear River Line Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

The Bear River Commemoration and Healing was held Monday, January 23.

The students found the military accounts only told half the story. It was numbing cold, 200 dismounted U.S. cavalrymen lay spread out in ambush positions along the snowy bluff over looking the winter camp of the Piegan leader Heavy Runner. Under the command of Colonel Eugene Baker, they were sent to punish another Piegan named Mountain Chief. Baker was under the influence of liquor and unable to direct his command.

Bear River Kid Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

The commemoration was attended by all ages.

As the camp was surrounded, its warriors were away hunting, and the edgy troopers awaited the command to fire. Heavy Runner came out of his lodge and walked toward the bluffs, waving a safe conduct paper. Army scout Joe Kipp shouted that this was the wrong camp. Kipp was threatened into silence. Another scout, Joe Cobell, fired the first shot, dropping Heavy Runner in his tracks. What followed, according to Lieutenant Gus Doane, who commanded F Company in the attack, was “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops.”

More than 200 Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet) were killed by the relentless firing of the Army’s Springfield rifles. Those who ran to the sheltering cut banks of the river were rounded up later. A total of 140 captives were turned loose without adequate food and clothing. Some froze to death trying to walk to Fort Benton, a 90-mile trek.

In all its horror and trauma, the Blackfeet have a word that means resiliency (Bo-sit-sii-como-tah) translated to mean “miracle survivor.” For the past 20 years the Blackfeet have held grieving ceremonies at the site. Every year the Blackfeet Warrior Society (Veterans of all Wars), the Crazy Dog Society (Khan-nat-so-mii-tah), horse back riders, buses of school kids, carloads of community members, and traditional elders, dance, sing and put the spirits to rest.

Bear River Commemoration Bear River Massacre Commemoration and HealingThe pictures that accompany this piece were taken on January 23, 2012. They show a historical time marking the last visit to the site and the tribes’ process of letting go, having forgiveness, and moving into a time of healing and wellness.

Bear River Carol Rusty Lea Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

Carol Murray, Councilman Rusty Tatsey, and Lea Whitford were recognized for their outstanding leadership.

This year is monumental for the Blackfeet Nation. It is the year that wellness activities of healing the mind, body, emotions, and spirit took place. Some of the greatest virtues of old time Indians are to be kind, generous, non-judgmental, to be humorous, loving, and humble. These are the behaviors the young people are choosing.

More than half the tribe is under 25 years old. Blackfeet Community College is the successful link that has provided many of those young tribal members to higher degrees and success at off reservation universities. The Blackfeet have a hospital and enrolled members now serve as its chief executive officer, as doctors, nurses, and other health givers.

The public school system has enrolled members as superintendents, teachers, and coaches.  The language immersion program has produced 40 fluent speakers from English speaking homes since 1995. The superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is an enrolled member. The Blackfeet Nation has come a long way and will only prosper in the future.

The following images and more can also be seen on the author’s Facebook page:

Bear River Healing Facebook e1327605807791 Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

Bear River Flags Facebook e1327605877555 Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

Bear River Commemoration Veterans Facebook e1327605984846 Bear River Massacre Commemoration and Healing

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March 20, 2012

Hunting the Rez Magazine’s Outdoor Expo a Huge Hit

When a small group of family and friends decided to take the plunge into the deep waters of the outdoor magazine world a year ago, they had a mutual love of the outdoors, a desire to get the word out on what was available for sportsmen visiting Indian lands, and a lot of optimism that a good cause and hard work would help them succeed.

It was over a year ago that Hunting The Rez magazine was born [“The Only Source for Hunting Indian Country”].   Now experienced publishers with four issues printed and number five in the works, the entrepreneurs from Montana’s Rocky Boy Reservation recognize the climb to success is a steep uphill trek but a good product tirelessly presented is garnering attention — and some new supporters.

“We quickly discovered that partnering and networking would be essential to achieving our goals,” said Jason Belcourt, founder/publisher/managing editor of Hunting The Rez.  And they have done so, swiftly and smartly.  When issue number one of the publication appeared in the spring of 2011, the editor wrote: “We have a lot to prove and a short time to get there.”

Magazine content has ranged from buffalo hunting the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to elk hunts with the Mescalero Apache, a trophy trout trek through Montana’s Blackfeet Nation, and a ‘Grand Slam Ram’ hunt on the Rocky Boys Reservation.

Although it’s a constant battle to round up advertising support for the quarterly publication, enough positive feedback has been received that other doors have been opened, like the partnership with International Sportsmen’s Exposition and joint sponsorship of the First Ever Hunting The Rez Live and Online Big Game Auction recently conducted at a first-of-its-kind Indian Pavilion in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Hunting The Rez and ISE partnered with eight tribes and outfitters throughout the United States and Canada to put together some of the most exciting, challenging, rewarding and fun hunting and fishing packages to ever be offered exclusively from Indian Country,” Belcourt said.  “Other outdoor shows have featured auctions, but the Hunting The Rez event is the first where all of the packages up for bid came exclusively from Indian Reservations.”

The auction resulted in a cash infusion of $117,100 for contributing tribal Natural Resource and Fish & Game Departments, a monetary boon as tribal programs look for alternative revenue sources to help offset federal funding cuts.

Flushed with the success of the initial auction, magazine co-owner Quentin Long Fox predicted: “We believe we have most of the kinks worked out to be able to have an even bigger and better event next year — with more than double the number of hunting and fishing packages to go to auction.”

Options this year ranged from 2-day trophy buffalo hunts in South and North Dakota to 5-day deer, elk, or trophy bull elk hunts in Montana and New Mexico, the rapid-fire salesmanship of an auctioneer solicited bids from attendees on the floor of the pavilion to those monitoring a live feed via the internet.

A 6-day whitetail deer rifle hunt package in Alberta, Canada sold for $4,200.  A 5-day fully-guided elk rifle hunt in North Central Montana drew a winning bid of $7,000.  Another Montana package, a 3-day 2- person fishing vacation on Blackfeet Nation waters, brought a bid of $1,000.  The final auction item, the one that drew the most interest and the most spirited bidding — and the highest price — involved a 10-day Rocky Mountain bighorn ram hunt on Montana’s Rocky Boy Indian Reservation.  Bidding started high and kept going higher until the last man standing wrote a check for $54,000.

On hand at this year’s 4-day ISE, billed as ‘the region’s largest adventure travel, fishing, hunting, and camping show,’ were representatives of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Hualapai Game & Fish Department and New Mexico’s Jicarilla Apache Reservation where sport hunting is an old tradition.

“Many hunters knew about the legendary elk hunts that take place on Native American lands, but few knew about the world-class deer hunts or fishing opportunities available,” said John Kirk, Communications Director for International Sportsmen’s Exposition.

“By partnering with Hunting The Rez in offering an Indian Pavilion at our Arizona show in February, we were able to get the word out to a much larger audience about the amazing hunting and angling opportunities available throughout North America’s Native American lands and waters and we look forward to expanding this first-time effort to more of our shows in 2013.”

Also in the works and moving forward is a television partnership with Sportsmen’s Channel watched by millions of viewers.  “We’re building up some show backlog,” says Long Fox who has acted as videographer for a below-freezing buffalo hunt in north central Montana, home to the Gros Ventre-Assiniboine, and a predator hunt in the Four Corners area of New Mexico — with 2012 video shoots planned for a cougar hunt as well as hunts for turkey and pheasant.

“Sportsmen’s Channel has signed with us for 13 episodes and they’ll start running our series as soon as we have eight programs shot, edited and ready to run,” Long Fox says.

“Indian Country is the biggest secret hot spot for sportsmen across the globe,” Belcourt says.  “There’s plenty of game and little hunting pressure and one of our goals is to inspire sportsmen and women to plan hunting/fishing adventures on tribal land that offers specific advantages like extended seasons for non-enrolled hunters.”

Read more @ Indian Country Today Media Network.comAcapulco, Mexico Rocked by 7.4 Earthquake - ICTMN.com.

April 12, 2012

Oil and Gas Boom in Indian Country! Tribal Leaders and EPA Meet in Denver

On April 3, tribal leaders met with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Denver to discuss a number of pertinent issues, including those related to booming oil and gas exploration on tribal lands and some of the accompanying problems.

Members of a six-state EPA tribal regional operations committee (ROC) analyzed recent oil exploration successes and drawbacks, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and the difficulty of environmental protection when big money is at stake.

Boom Times

Indian country is poised for substantial new oil and gas activity, the revenue from which may equal or exceed the riches currently being extracted from the Bakken Formation, which lies beneath a 200,000 square-mile area in North Dakota and Montana that includes Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Oil and gas production in North Dakota has yielded more than $1.3 billion annually and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) inspections on federal mineral operations on the Bakken Formation rose from 200 to 718 in a four-year period, according to that agency.

Jim Stockbridge, BLM trust liaison officer, said that on Fort Berthold the revenue from oil and gas is “huge,” but it may pale in comparison to projected extraction on Ute Indian Tribe lands on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, where oil resources exist that may be “at least as big as the Bakken Formation.”

Another area expected to see “a phenomenal amount of activity” in oil and gas exploration is around Farmington, N.M., which may add 1,000 new wells this year, he said.

Social Costs

Along with the minerals boom, however, are social problems. For instance, with so much money coming into the area, real estate values tend to spike dramatically, pushing housing costs too high for low- to mid-level employees; this just one issue of many on “the entire spectrum of what you’ll have to deal with,” Stockbridge said.

Alfreda Mitre, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, director of EPA’s regional Tribal Assistance Program, in an introduction to the discussion noted potential effects on roads, transportation, infrastructure, housing, air and water.

For every restaurant on Fort Berthold, there’s a least a one-hour wait 24 hours per day, Stockbridge said, while at an intersection without a traffic light a pedestrian had to wait a half-hour to cross because of the constant stream of semi-trucks going through non-stop.

Describing huge per-acre payments to individuals by exploration companies, Stockbridge said “these kinds of revenue will become the norm.”

Dean Goggles, of the Northern Arapaho/Eastern Shoshone Wind River Reservation’s environmental quality commission, said 99 percent of tribal land has minerals belonging to the tribe and oil companies “have jumped on this—it’s a land grab.”

Hydraulic Fracturing: Pros and Cons

EPA scientist Nathan Wiser noted that fracking can “increase production dramatically” in the oil and gas shale that occurs across the U.S.

Fracking drills and injects water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rock beneath so that it releases oil and gas. As oil prices rise, production using fracking has become economically viable.

Both the Ute Indian Tribe of Utah and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe of Colorado wrote to the government early this year expressing concern about pending BLM rules on fracking as it could affect economic development.

After years of hardship, “new BLM rules on hydraulic fracturing would disproportionately impact the Tribe due to our greater reliance on oil and gas development for economic growth and sustainability,” the Ute Indian Tribe wrote.

Fracking “makes the extraction of oil and gas economically feasible,” said the Southern Utes, noting there are “significant recoverable resources” in shale formations on their reservation.

Wiser said some fracking issues include the acquisition of fracking water and its competition with drinking water, the disposal of flowback from the wells, the adequacy of treatment of the flowback, spills that could enter streams, and others. “The seismicity issue is definitely of interest,” he said, explaining that if there is existing tectonic strain, fracking could “lubricate” the process.

Protecting the Environment

With so much money pouring onto tribal lands, “it’s like trying to stop a freight train,” Stockbridge said, and “the environment may be steamrolled” without early planning. At Fort Berthold, they can’t get enough rigs in to drill rapidly enough, and the operations require “a phenomenal amount of water,” he said.

Environmental concerns will have to “get ahead of the game” because of the “astronomical” amounts of money involved, he said.

EPAROCWagner 270x311 Oil and Gas Boom in Indian Country! Tribal Leaders and EPA Meet in Denver

Gerald Wagner, photo by Carol Berry

Gerald Wagner, Blackfeet Nation environmental service director and vice-chairperson of the ROC, said his tribe is looking for the “environmental protection component” although the tribe does have protection ordinance. Nevertheless, the tribe is looking for the “best protection of our resource” and said he is concerned about effects to the aquifer, which may be only 10 feet from drilling activity.

Exploratory wells that use fracking have been drilled on the Blackfeet Nation’s reservation, where tracts adjoin Glacier National Park and have been a concern to some tribal members. The region may contain some 109 million barrels of oil as part of the Bakken Formation, according to tribal officials.

Tribal leaders in Denver were also told about an EPA investigation of drinking water problems in a small Wyoming community surrounded by gas production wells on the Wind River Reservation. Monitoring wells near gas wells where fracking occurred from 1998 to 2006 showed that contaminants present at high levels in the monitoring wells were “likely a result of hydraulic fracturing,” said Ayn Schmit, unit chief, EcoSystems Protection.

There is concern that the contaminants “could migrate to drinking water wells” though further study is needed, she said.

At the end of the session on oil and gas development, Wagner recalled the phrase, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” — unless, he added, you include drinking water “with gas bubbling up out of it.”

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August 16, 2012

The New York Times Profiles Blackfeet Drilling Dilemma

The debate over fracking in Blackfeet country has reached the pages of The New York Times. In a report in the August 15 edition, the newspaper of record discusses the opposing world views of those who would drill versus those who fear it would bring both cultural and environmental destruction.

At issue is whether the sacredness of the mountains, streams and vegetation can be maintained if the land is drilled and its oil and gas resources extracted. On the one hand, the Times notes, with unemployment up at about 70 percent on the reservation, the 49 jobs created by one drilling rig alone have helped immensely. And at least 30 exploratory wells have been drilled this year. On the other hand, people like tribal member Pauline Matt told the Times that the drilling “threatens everything we are as Blackfeet.”

Also threatening, though, may be the poverty and alcoholism that mar life on the reservation, and tribal elders, the Times points out, would like to cure that. Jobs and revenue could be the answer.

The Blackfeet are one of many tribes facing such choices. Indian country in general is increasing its oil and gas activity. The 200,000-square-mile region under which lies the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and Montana is already being exploited.

Drilling on the Blackfeet reservation so far is for testing only. With oil difficult to extract, it remains to be seen whether such drilling would be profitable enough to outweigh the costs of getting it out, the Times said.

The Times captures the dilemma and the division between tribal members and outlooks in photos as well, with a slide show accompanying the article. The full story, “Tapping Into the Land, and Dividing Its People,” is on The New York Times website.

More on oil and gas drilling in Indian country:

Oil and Gas Boom in Indian Country! Tribal Leaders and EPA Meet in Denver

For Blackfeet, Fracking Has Too Much Economic Upside

North Dakota Oil Boom Bringing Jobs, Wealth—and a Looming Humanitarian Crisis

Tex Hall: MHA Nation ‘Going Gangbusters in the Bakken’ to Process Oil

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October 10, 2012

Montana Tribes Demand Equal Access to Early Voting

On October 10, members of three Montana tribes—Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Gros Ventre and Assiniboine—filed a voting-rights lawsuit in federal court in Billings. One defendant is Montana’s head election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. The other 13 are commissioners and election officers of Rosebud, Big Horn and Blaine counties, which overlap the three tribes’ reservations, respectively, and handle their non-tribal elections.

The tribal members are suing because the officials do not plan to provide the three reservations with satellite offices for early voting, which got underway in Montana on October 9 and runs through election day. The 16 plaintiffs say this violates rights protected by the United States and Montana constitutions and the Voting Rights Act (VRA). All three counties named have lost or settled VRA suits. Today’s failure to provide satellite early voting reinforces a “history of official racial discrimination in voting,” the suit said.

Several counties around the state have minimal satellite offices; most, like the one in Rosebud County, handle local-tax payments and motor-vehicle matters. A few also accept absentee ballots, according to an advisory from the state’s attorney general, Steve Bullock. He announced on August 17 that in Montana setting up a full-fledged early-voting satellite office, away from the main one in the county seat, is legal and doable—though optional.

Rosebud County election official Geraldine Custer said logistics influenced her decision not to set up early voting in her existing ancillary office on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. “I don’t care if they’re white, black or Chinese,” she said. “I just don’t have the staff. It’s not about race. I’m just swamped.” Custer also called the attorney general’s advisory “a suggestion” and “a work-around” and noted that he had not termed it a formal “opinion.”

The October 10 lawsuit follows five months of talks between several tribes, the secretary of state and county officials. In the end, only Glacier County chose to provide enhanced early-voting access, to the Blackfeet Nation.

Without satellite offices, members of the remaining seven tribes must travel to county seats to early-vote, said O.J. Semans, the Lakota head of Four Directions, a national voting-rights nonprofit that is consulting with the Montana tribes. The trips can be long—more than 100 miles for the Northern Cheyenne, Semans said. He called such distances a barrier to voting for reservations where unemployment is as high 80 percent and tribal members may not have vehicles or gas money for the journey.

Online, email and faxed ballots have been suggested as substitutes, but most Native people in Montana don’t have these technologies, Semans said. Even applying for, receiving and submitting ballots by mail may not work, due to the transience of very poor people.

“The substitutes are fine for Montana’s predominantly white towns and cities, but not for its reservations,” said Semans, whose South-Dakota-based group has offered to pay for the additional early-voting offices. “Right now, practically speaking, most Native American Indians in Montana have one day to vote in person—November 6—and no more days to late-register. White people have 20 days. That’s not equal access.”

Custer said this was the first she’d heard of such access difficulties. “If it’s a problem here, it’s probably a problem nationally, and we should fix it everywhere.” (She also said her husband is distantly related to both Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his Sioux opponents, who helped the Seventh Cavalry officer secure his place in history in Montana in 1876.)

Custer added that early-voting demands didn’t originate in Montana: “The people from South Dakota got the Montana tribes going.”

A description of Four Directions as “outside agitators” has been floating around the state in recent weeks. Tom Rodgers, a Blackfeet tribal member working with Four Directions, said he was offended. “I have hundreds of relatives on the Blackfeet Reservation. I am not an outsider.”

Rodgers, the whistleblower in the Jack Abramoff scandal, pointed out that Montana’s U.S. Senate race—between the Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and his Republican challenger, Denny Rehberg—may determine control of the Senate. And that means millions in campaign contributions flowing into the state.

However, despite all the money and the influence behind it, tribal members may determine the election—if they can get to the polls—Rodgers said. He recalled that Native support tipped the balance for Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Tim Johnson (D-SD) and others. “It’s the poorest of the poor versus the billionaires,” said Rodgers.

Mysteriously, on August 28, when McCulloch issued a satellite-early-voting advisory (based on the attorney general’s finding), she did not include the tribes. “The Secretary of State’s Office is charged with ensuring the uniform application of election laws, which is why we issued guidance to election administrators,” explained Terri L. McCoy, the secretary of state’s communications director, in an email. Beyond that, McCoy wrote, “this is a local county issue.”

Eventually the tribes found out. In mid-September, the three who are now suing asked that their counties provide satellite early voting.

Four Directions consultant Bret Healy claimed Montana officials have a “frontier mentality,” saying, “The secretary of state has been throwing sand in the gears from the start. It’s been delay and obfuscation. She even suggested we wait and introduce a bill in the legislature next spring. County officials have lied—telling the tribes ‘yes’ when they’d already voted ‘no,’ then finally refusing to open an office.”

What’s it all about? Said Semans: “Delaying until it’s too late, and Native American Indians miss out—again—on equal voting rights.”

McCoy responded that Linda McCulloch has “unwavering commitment to equal access.” The secretary of state’s legal counsel, Jorge Quintana, said the time involved was essential for reviewing the complex election process. He reiterated that Montana’s secretary of state cannot require counties to provide satellite early-voting offices. Only the legislature can do that: “If it does, we’ll move heaven and earth to be sure it happens.”

If tribal members do get more voting access? “We’ll need election protection to be sure elders, younger voters and others don’t suffer intimidation at the polls,” said Rodgers.

Blackfeet Indian Reservation Montana Tribes Demand Equal Access to Early Voting

So far, the Blackfeet Nation is the only tribe in Montana that will receive enhanced early-voting services. (Wikimedia Commons)

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November 7, 2012

Blackfeet Voters Hampered by Intimidation, Lack of Ballots

In the late afternoon of an Election Day marred by voter intimidation and what appeared to be a faked anthrax attack on the Blackfeet tribal hall in Browning, Montana—and after a bruising several-month but ultimately successful fight for on-reservation early voting—ballots ran out on the tribe’s reservation in Glacier County. Some Blackfeet voters had long waits, and others may not have voted at all.

Party politics seems to have played a role. A look at 2012 electoral results reveals that counties dominated by reservations—including Blaine, Big Horn, Glacier and Roosevelt—went for U.S. Senate incumbent Jon Tester. This means Montana Indians helped him retain his seat and helped Democrats keep control of the Senate.

For their part, the state’s Republicans appear to have an adversarial relationship with Native voters. In mid-morning in the Browning precinct, an operative of Republican Dennis Rehberg’s now-failed U.S. Senate campaign told voters that possessing palm cards listing candidates endorsed by Montana Native Vote was illegal.

Diane Bird, Blackfeet and a representative of the voting-rights organization who was handing out the cards, said a voter told her he’d “almost gotten thrown in jail,” as a result of having one of the group’s cards. “A lot of people were afraid.”

Said Michael DesRosiers, Blackfeet and Glacier County Commission chairman: “I was personally told by voters that a Rehberg operative had questioned them about their palm cards and if they had IDs. They told me they felt intimidated and were angry.”

Election-protection observers straightened out the situation, including reminding voters they should be sure to take the cards with them after casting ballots. “Then people started asking for the cards,” Bird said.

Neither Rehberg’s campaign headquarters nor his press representative responded to requests for a comment.

Then, at about 2 p.m., a package containing a substance appearing to be anthrax arrived at the tribal hall, causing it and other facilities to be closed for a couple of hours. The incident appeared unrelated to the election. “[It] did not disrupt the election. It was handled by tribal homeland security and law enforcement,” said DesRosiers.

Toward evening, ballots ran out in Native precincts around Glacier County. “From ten of 5 until about 7 p.m., there were no ballots in Browning, and that’s prime voting time,” said Browning schoolteacher Anne Lunak. Two other election participants confirmed the lack of ballots.

During the two-hour gap in Browning, 20 to 30 voters left, Lunak said. “No one wrote down the names of those who left, so there’s no way to know if they returned to vote. I said, ‘this is wrong, this is not how we run an election.’” Some had come a long distance over difficult roads, she said. “It makes you wonder. If we make voting difficult, does this discourage people from coming back for the next election?”

At 7 p.m., when Jimi Champs, Blackfeet, got to the polling place in predominantly Native North Cut Bank, ballots had run out there, too, she said. “People had been sitting since 6 or 6:30. They were frustrated, but they stayed. The ballots finally arrived at 7:30.”

Two more Native polling places—in East Glacier and a second Browning precinct—ran out of ballots as well, according to Bret Healy, a consultant with voter-rights group Four Directions who was observing the Blackfeet election.

At 8:30 p.m., Terri McCoy, spokesperson for Montana’s top election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, said the Blackfeet voters’ wait had been a matter of minutes. “The ballot issue was resolved extremely quickly, and no one was turned away.”

On Wednesday morning, a staffer in the Glacier County Clerk and Recorders office, which ran the election, said the wait in the Blackfeet precincts could have been caused by lines forming when the ballots ran out, not because it took a long time to deliver them. “People may have waited two hours, but it was because of the backlog,” she said.

“There were no lines,” said Healy. “No one showed up till we put on the radio that ballots had arrived.”

Effect on turnout? Precincts that ran out of ballots had the lowest turnout on the reservation, said Healy.

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