Carole Lankford remembers when Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal activist Lucille Otter approached her more than 30 years ago.
"She's the one who came to me and said, 'You don't vote," says Lankford, who's now 53 and Vice Chairwoman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Otter wanted her to start voting.
Otter died in 1997, at 81. Her efforts to get tribal members involved in state and federal politics had helped spark a movement that continues to grow. According to the 2010 Census, American Indians constitute roughly 6.3 percent of the state's population (other estimates place that number slightly higher). During the last legislative session in Montana, eight American Indian Caucus members served; that's roughly an 83 percent rate of representation.
But it's taken a significant amount of emotional debate and several lawsuits to ensure American Indians get their say in civic dialogue. Not that long ago, indigenous people were almost entirely absent from state and local lawmaking efforts in Montana. Only one American Indian legislator served from a reservation during the 1975 Montana Legislature. "He was a very lonely person, from what I could tell," says Pat Smith, an Assiniboine attorney who interned during the 1975 session.
The size and shape of Montana's voting districts made electing American Indians tough. That led Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribal members in 1983 to file a lawsuit in state court alleging that countywide elections, or "at-large elections," diluted the Native vote. The problem was, plaintiffs in Windy Boy v. the County of Big Horn said, that the white majority nearly always voted for a white candidate and their votes almost always trumped those cast for a minority candidate.
Plaintiffs pointed out that despite the fact that nearly half of Big Horn County's voting-age population was Native American, no member of the Crow or Northern Cheyenne Indian tribes had ever been elected to serve on a school board or as a county commissioner. Much of the debate boiled down to whether American Indians had the means to achieve proportionate representation, based not just on race but also on the political identity of tribal people.
In 1986, District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie found that Indians in Big Horn County had little opportunity to elect their candidates. Because of that, the judge said that Big Horn County had violated the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires that racial or language minorities get an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
In response to Rafeedie's opinion, Big Horn County created smaller districts that allowed for majority-Indian voting blocs. The Windy Boy case set the stage for future lawsuits and, ultimately, the creation of an increasing number of majority-Indian voting districts.
"During that 20-year period following 1984, Montana was the most litigated state in the nation on enforcing the federal Voting Rights Act in Indian Country," Smith says.
Creation of the statewide voting districts that shape the Montana Legislature has also been contentious. Every 10 years, legislative leaders select a five-member Districting and Apportionment Commission that takes new population information gathered in the census and uses it to redraw legislative districts. That mapping effort is now underway.
Smith was appointed by Senate Minority leader Carol Williams, a Democrat, to serve on the Districting Commission. The body is slated to decide on a new legislative map by 2013.
The commission is weighing five plans. The Existing Plan uses established legislative boundaries as a starting point for new districts. The Subdivision Plan pays particular attention to existing political subdivisions such as county and school district boundaries. Rural versus urban designations are addressed in another option. And the Deviation Plan emphasizes the achievement of districts with roughly equal numbers of voters. Lankford and the CSKT support the Communities Plan, which draws majority-Indian voter blocs with higher minority percentages than the other four proposals.
Langford testified in support of the Communities Plan before the Apportionment and Districting Commission last month. She cited the long battles waged by American Indians to secure equal representation and asked the commission to ensure Native American progress isn't eroded. "I am fearful that it could be lost," she says.
The Blackfeet Tribe is also officially endorsing the Community Plan, says Shannon Augare, a Democrat who represents Senate District 8, an Indian-majority district that includes the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations. He says it's important to the tribe that American Indians represent reservation interests in Helena. "We want to continue to make sure that we're building on our economic successes."
But Indian voting blocs can present logistical challenges. For instance, Augare's Senate district runs from Shelby along the Canadian border into Glacier Park and across the mountains before bypassing Kalispell and Polson to land on Missoula County's northern tip.
Sprawling, oddly-shaped districts like Augare's can make it tough for legislators to stay in touch with their constituents, says Dan Salomon, a Republican legislator from House District 12, which includes a portion of Lake County and the Flathead Reservation.
Salomon doesn't like what the Community Plan would do to his district. Spanning two counties and two school districts, it breaks Polson into three different legislative districts. Ronan, St. Ignatius, Charlo and Arlee are each cut in two, he says. For a legislator, that kind of district requires navigating multiple layers of lawmaking and administrative bodiesand many miles on the road. "That's my issue with the Community Planit's not a community plan," Salomon says.
For the same basic reasons, Salomon doesn't like any of the five proposals. Even so, he's sensitive to the Districting Commission's challenges. "I'm glad they're on the commission and not me," he says. "It's just a game of dominos."
The Districting Commission is holding a series of public meetings to air its proposed plans. For more information, go to www.leg.mt.gov and click on the link for "2011-2012 Interim Committees."