BILLINGS, Mont. – While Americans head to the polls on Election Day during National Native American Heritage month, groups in Montana look to engage Native Americans in building political and personal power to address local community challenges.
Western Native Voice, a non-profit, non-partisan organization in Billings continues to work to increase Native American participation and engagement in voting and self-determination.
Native Americans faced centuries of struggle before acquiring full U.S. citizenship and legal protection of their voting rights.
A lot of what Native Americans face today is issues with new legislation and voter access as the 7% population of Montana identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native lives almost evenly split between rural tribal nations and urban areas.
According to historian at the Library of Congress, the Snyder Act of 1924 admitted Native Americans born in the U.S. to full U.S. citizenship.
Though the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race, it wasn't until the Snyder Act that Native Americans could enjoy the rights granted by this amendment.
Even with the passing of the citizenship bill, Native Americans were still prevented from participating in elections because the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who has the right to vote.
After the passage of the 1924 citizenship bill, it still took over 40 years for all fifty states to allow Native Americans to vote.
Back in July 2021, Montana tribal leaders met with Vice President Kamala Harris voicing their concerns about some legislation which could create obstacles for rural reservation voters such as HB 176 ending same day voter registration on election day.
“People like to go in-person and vote at their local polling location, sometimes because of you know moving around or maybe they didn’t vote in the last couple of elections, and we're placed on an inactive list, they’re not really notified as best as can be,” Western Native Voice Deputy Director Ta’jin Perez said.
In the last year, 18 states put new laws into place in an attempt to make elections more secure; however, some say those laws could make it more difficult for certain groups of Americans to cast their vote.
Perez referenced HB 530 and the end of organized ballot collection in places like rural reservations, redistricting in Indian country for the second Montana U.S. House of Representatives seat and new rules when it comes to using identification and an address to register to vote which some rural reservation voters do not have.
You can learn more about Western Native Voice and all of their online resources here.