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Big Sky Connection 

Native Americans in Montana may want to become civically engaged but struggle with where to start. Comments from Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director, Western Native Voice, who says understanding Native folks' history in one way to show people that getting involved in elections is important

Click on the image above for the audio. The rate of Native Americans voting in Montana has been rising in recent elections. (FranciscoJavier/Adobe Stock) 

Eric Tegethoff

April 12, 3033

It can feel daunting to know where to start for people who want to get involved in their communities, and being civically engagement can mean something different for Indigenous folks in Montana.

Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan group Western Native Voice, which works to get more native people in Montana involved in elections, said one motivating and empowering factor to get people involved is explaining the relationship between tribes and the U.S. government.

"Understanding that American Indians or Alaska Natives are not another racial or ethnic group, but have a unique sovereign political status that is acknowledged in the U.S. Constitution, various Supreme Court rulings, executive orders, acts of Congress and other federal policies," Horse outlined.

Horse pointed out people also are more likely to get involved in elections when they understand Native Americans' voting history. Native Americans were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, and then faced Jim Crow-era barriers to the ballot until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. About two-thirds of Native Americans voted in the 2020 election in Montana. The state's 2022 primary election is June 7.

Horse emphasized people can start small if they want to get civically engaged. To make the greatest impact, she said having in-person conversations are the most powerful. Horse noted unfortunately, the pandemic has disrupted her organization's ability to do work in that way, but they have expanded their digital footprint.

"We did get a farther reach with the younger generation," Horse explained. "But it was difficult because of that lack of face-to-face interaction to get the message across."

Horse added it is also important for elected leaders to understand Native American communities and some of the barriers they face, especially to voting. Issues such as voting by mail are critical, for instance, because mailboxes can be far away from voters living on reservations or in rural parts of the state, which can be a barrier to participating in elections.

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