By Ron Feemster, WyoFile.com
RIVERTON — Micah Lott and Jenea Mandan, a pair of teenagers raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation, knock on the door of a modest wooden home in Beaver Creek, a small development on a barren rise just south of Riverton.
When Madonna Oldman answers her door, they hand her a flyer that explains where and when the polls open in her area and urge her to cast a ballot.
“There will be a feast for everyone who votes,” Lott says. “Come with your ‘I voted’ sticker and you can eat and get a T-shirt.” The tribes are holding feasts in Arapahoe, Fort Washakie and Ethete. Traditional meals of beef stew and fried bread are on the menu. About 300 pounds of beef have been purchased for the festivities, according to Jolene Catron, one of the organizers.
“I was thinking of voting,” says Oldman, 41, who is director of the Black Coal Senior Center in Arapahoe. “But I need a ride. My car broke down.”
The canvassers have an answer for that, as well. Voters can call for a ride to the polls. Lott will field calls on his cell phone all day Tuesday, and let van drivers know where to pick up voters.
Lott and Mandan are wearing red and white “Native Vote” T-shirts, the same shirts that volunteers will pass out to the first 500 voters on Tuesday. Lott, 19, is six foot three but seems taller, his black hair laced with purple streaks and spiked into a Mohawk. His generous frame fills the largest T-shirt the group has available. Mandan, 17, is as short and slender as Lott is tall. Her T-shirt hangs on her like a tent. Both wear piercings in their lips and oversize sunglasses.
The two describe themselves as best friends and have spent most weekend days for the last month knocking on doors from Riverton to Fort Washakie. Lott founded a grassroots organization, RezVote, when he was 15. The successor to that group, RezAction, spearheaded this year’s campaign to turn out voters.
“You need to vote,” Lott says. “Your vote is your voice. You need to vote if you want to have a voice. Hopefully we can get a higher percentage of voters this year than in the past.”
The last Saturday before the election they are out with almost a dozen other young people walking the streets of residential areas between Riverton and Fort Washakie. Some of the canvassers are seasoned campaigners.
Layha Spoonhunter, 22, was the youngest Wyoming delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. He traveled to Pennsylvania to campaign for then candidate Obama in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
“People know that I’m pro-Obama,” Spoonhunter said. “But the canvassing is non-partisan. I hold myself back. I don’t talk about specific candidates. The most important thing is that we see the people here involved in the political process.”
The campaign to get out the vote cost about $14,500. It was supported in part by the Equality State Policy Center (a non-profit whose 30 member organizations include unions and environmental groups), and by the tribal councils and individual donors.
“Politicians pay attention to communities that vote,” said Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC). “Our basic pitch to communities is that you have to participate if you want them to listen to you.”
ESPC partially funds similar get-out-the-vote efforts in low-income areas of Rawlins, Casper, Rock Springs, Torrington and Cheyenne, Neal said.
The last big effort to turn out voters on the reservation happened in 2004, when Patrick Goggles, now the minority leader in the Wyoming State House, defeated Jim Allen, who is also his opponent this year. Allen was appointed in 2004 to serve out the remainder of the term of Rep. Harry Tipton, who died in office. Tipton, a medical doctor, was well loved in the Indian community, not least because he delivered several generations of babies on the reservation.
In the 2004 election, Goggles lost in six voting precincts outside the reservation, but won handily in three of the four precincts within its borders.
“Every voter that year was fed a meal and given a free T-shirt,” Allen said. “They’re doing the same thing this year.”
In the 2010 election, the tribes organized no large effort to canvass the neighborhoods, nor did they throw feasts and give away T-shirts. Voter turnout on the reservation was low and Goggles defeated Daniel Cardenas by just 19 votes, 1,066 to 1,047.
The low voter turnout two years ago and a widely held perception among reservation leaders that Allen does not back Indian sovereignty, almost certainly spurred this year’s get-out-the-vote effort.
In particular, Indian voters are concerned about Allen’s statement, quoted in the Oct. 18 issue of the Wind River News, that the relationship between the U.S. government and the tribes should be “revisited.” This, in the view of Gary Collins, Northern Arapahoe tribal liaison, amounts to an attack on Indian sovereignty.
“We think this is code for a move to terminate the tribes,” Collins said, referring to an Eisenhower-era policy that ended the sovereign-nation status for many tribes. “Almost every water drainage goes through tribal lands.” With water rights even more controversial now than in the 1950s, Collins fears that tribes might lose sovereignty in a broader fight for water rights.
Allen says the tribes have nothing to worry about. “I absolutely respect tribal sovereignty,” Allen said. “State government has very limited jurisdiction in Indian affairs.”
Allen, a rancher whose family has owned property on the reservation since the 1870s, has also been involved in a right-of-way dispute with the tribes, after a tribal member closed the road leading to his outfitting camp at the Dickinson Park Trailhead above Fort Washakie.
“That is absolutely not why I’m running,” Allen said. “I have no axe to grind.”
Allen, who served on the Agriculture, Public Lands and Water Interim Subcommittee as a representative in 2004, says his most important issues are related to natural resources: agriculture, wildlife, water and soil.
“And I am committed to equal and fair representation for everyone in my district,” Allen said.
Although a potentially divisive race underlies the voter turnout effort, the canvassing remains stubbornly non-partisan. None of the young people WyoFile followed ever mentioned a candidate’s name. Most say they just want to see the culture of voter apathy change on the reservation.
That may take more than knocking on a few doors. “One guy told us, ‘I don’t vote. I’m a traditional Indian,’” Lott said, shaking his head. “I wasn’t sure what to say to him.”
On Saturday, one older man accepted a flyer from Lott and called out as the canvassers were walking away.
“What is this election?” he asked.
“It’s for president of the United States,” Lott answered.
“Oh. When are they voting?”
“It’s Tuesday, November 6,” Lott said. “Come out and vote.”
At another stop, a man who described himself as unemployed said he was not planning to vote except in tribal elections.
“If you vote, they call you for jury duty,” he said. “I don’t want to be on jury duty.”
Other voters said they go to the polls year in and year out.
“I don’t miss many elections,” said Inez Brown, 51, a grandmother who lives in Great Plains and works at Early Head Start. “I think more people would vote if they were aware of the work the Tribal Council is trying to do. They have meetings to discuss it, but don’t publicize it enough.”
If turnout is large or small, the effort paid personal dividends for Lott, Mandan and most of the other young people who participated in the canvassing drive. Almost all of the members of the group came up through United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), an organization that promotes healthy lifestyle choices among young people. Not all of them joined on their own accord.
“I got a Minor Under the Influence when I was 13,” said Lott. “The judge told me I had to join UNITY. But when I got there I got interested. It changed my life. A couple of years later I started my own organization.”
His political activity has taken him on dozens of trips, from UNITY meetings in San Diego and meetings with the Wyoming Congressional delegation in Washington to a visit to the Seneca tribe in New York.
Mandan, the oldest of five siblings, says she spent several years in and out of group homes. She got involved in politics so that her younger sisters and brother could look up to her.
“I used to be bad,” Mandan said. “Now I look forward to going to college.”
Mandan finished her GED a few months ago. Lott, a graduate of Arapahoe Charter High School, is studying radio broadcasting at Central Wyoming College. In the spring, they hope to move to Lawrence, Kans., and attend Haskell Indian Nations University.
In the meantime, Lott is trying to build up RezAction. He welcomes everyone.
“I’ve noticed that people who have had trouble in their life are the most active,” Lott said. “The people who had to change are more committed. I think they care more than the people whose lives were always good.”
On Tuesday, Lott will vote for the first time. Mandan, who does not turn 18 until January, will be at the polls all day, doing everything but casting a ballot.
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was as a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.