Monday, July 21, 2008

Indians Voting, With Reservations

Indians Voting, With Reservations

FLANDREAU, S.D.—Helen Gilbert steered her white SUV through the streets of her hometown reservation and pointed out the landmarks.

The buffalo farm. The historic Flandreau Christian Church. The grounds where the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe performs its sun dance. The Moody County Courthouse, where on this chilly June day, hundreds of her fellow tribal members voted for the next U.S. president.

Some members said they don't care. Others don't think their vote will matter. But Gilbert still believes that every vote matters so she spent Election Day driving folks to the polls.

"It's a daily struggle to get through 24 hours," Gilbert said. "OK," she added, pausing, "you're asking me to vote. Vote for what? ... I can't even get milk, food and now gas."

Nevertheless, Gilbert said she has no plans to stop voting and wants others to do the same.

As they voted in the final primary before the national party conventions in August and September, the people of Flandreau on this small reservation near Sioux Falls, S.D., were split.

Larry Crantz, a tribal member, supported Sen. Barack Obama because he had more to say about Native Americans before visiting South Dakota. Chomping on gravy-smothered roast beef, Crantz said he doubted a new president would help Native American tribes.

If Obama is like past presidents, he will tend to forget about Native tribes, Crantz said. "If they took care of the Native Americans like they take care of the foreigners, we'd be in heaven," he said. Then he gave a wheezing laugh.

Sitting in a blue rocking chair with a cast on her fractured left foot, Helena Thompson, a feisty 70-year-old, wasn't willing to share her vote. It's her business, she said. What is the point of voting in a closed booth if you go and share afterward?

Although her vote remained secret, she wore her political views on her sleeve. Thompson said she believed that the president would do nothing for Native Americans, that everyone should help themselves and not rely on the federal government.

"We as Native Americans have been so spoiled," she said. "We need to start standing on our own two feet."

Brittney Wilson, 18, said Obama would keep his word about helping Native Americans. Her voice grew louder as she mentioned that other Natives must vote, wake up and understand what's going on around them.

"People can't bitch about who the next president is if they don't even take the time to vote," she said.

Navigating through town, Gilbert drove past a "Hillary" sign on a front lawn. She rolled her eyes.

"I got to meet Barack, and he's a genuine person with a sense of humor," she said. "He's setting the stage and is ready to perform. He hit it right on with Native issues."

Gilbert agreed presidents have not followed through on promises concerning Native issues. She cited struggles on the reservation and said votes can make a difference. Voting may not be a top priority, but Natives must take it seriously, she added.

"Native Americans aren't out to make friends," she said. "They're their out to make family. They believe in trust. If there was a poster child for hope, it's the Native people."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was written as a class assignment at the American Indian Journalism Institute and was originally published on AIJI: Freedom Forum Diversity Institute.]

Krista Leman, Ninilchik, is a student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

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