Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

Amy Croover is the Native Vote Director for the Montana Democratic Party. (Photo via press release)

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

First the news: Montana Democrats hired Amy Croover as director of the Native Vote program. A Democratic Party press release said her task is to increase the number of Native American voters.

The message is significant. Montana Democrats are investing real resources to give American Indian voters a greater say. “As a country and as a state, we’ve moved the needle in the right direction when it comes to our cherished Native American communities and culture, but more work needs to be done,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the state’s Democrats. 

Croover has a solid resume. She’s a Ho-Chunk tribal member and has worked with Montana tribes. She’s worked with young people at the Salish Kootenai College. And she was Sen. Jon Tester’s Native American liaison for seven years. “I jumped at the chance to be a part of the team that elects Denise Juneau as the first Native American woman to Congress,” Croover said. “I believe that when Democrats govern, Indian Country wins.”

This is a nice turn of the phrase. It’s a flip of what Denise Juneau often says in her stump speech, when Indians vote, Democrats win.

Now the context. At its core politics is about two things: Policy and mechanics. Policy is the ideas, often the stuff that happens after elections;  mechanics is how policy gets made.

Another way to think about the difference: Policy is usually what politicians talk about. Mechanics is the work that’s actually done by people whose names we may never know.

Political parties (both Republicans and Democrats) talk a lot about American Indian and Alaska Native policy. President Nixon’s 1970 message that declared an end to termination and the promotion of self-determination was a policy prescription. But the mechanics of that pronouncement was left up to Congress, largely, Forrest Gerard working with Sen. Henry Jackson and Franklin Ducheneaux, who was Rep. Morris Udall’s counsel in the House. The idea was not enough. Someone had to do the work.

It’s the same with elections. It’s one thing to lay out an American Indian policy, most candidates who have an interest in Indian Country do just that, but it’s another step entirely to invest in the mechanics. 

This is important because no matter how many of us want to vote for Denise Juneau (or any of the seven other Native federal candidates) that will not happen unless we have registered first. The process is mechanical. Register voters. Then count them. Find out where the numbers could be higher and then register more people. Repeat as often as necessary.

It’s the same step by step process for voting. (I especially like absentee voting because it’s a way to bank and count actual votes.)

And this election is the right one to test the mechanical approach to democracy in Indian Country because there are so many Native candidates on the ballot. The incentives are aligned for people to vote for Denise Juneau as well as Native Democratic candidates for the legislature. 

Other states have seen initiatives to improve the mechanics of the Native vote. Two years ago, for example, Sen. Mark Begich made Alaska Native voters a key element of his unsuccessful bid for re-election. But. The thing is. Begich made the election a lot closer than it would have been had he not made the effort. And, his staff work in the many villages probably helped elect Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot. The mechanics paid off.

The most common complaint I hear from Native candidates (especially former candidates who have lost) is that they get no help from their state or national party. That needs to change because in the years to come Indian Country will need more investment in the mechanical side of politics. As the demographics of the nation shift, there will be more and more states and districts where the Native vote will make the difference. But for that to happen, someone has to do the work.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

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