Last weekend, members and friends of the Chippewa Cree Tribe gathered at Montana State University-Northern for a winter powwow celebration.
Right in the center of the activities was Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont. He took part in the entrance dance when hundreds of Native American in Indian attire entered the gym.
It’s not that unusual that politicians take part in powwow celebrations, but it is a might unusual to see Republicans take part.
Of course, Daines’ appearance was labeled as a fact-finding effort and had nothing to do with Daines’ upcoming Senate campaign.
Hopefully, this is the first in many steps by Republicans to make their presence known on reservations.
Many Natives I’ve talked to would like to see two parties compete for the Native American vote. But they feel that Democrats have won their vote by default. Republicans make no effort to convince racial minorities to vote for the GOP.
Almost simultaneous to Daines’ appearance, political analyst Charlie Cook was on C-SPAN talking about problems the GOP faces in the future. Republicans are doing well attracting older, white voters, especially men. The problem for Republicans, he said, is that the nation is becoming younger and less white.
The same is true of the Hi-Line. In Blaine County, there are more Natives than white people, according to the U.S. Census.
While Natives are a distinct minority in Hill County, the white population is slowly declining, especially in the rural areas. At Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, the number of people is on the uptick.
White people in the two counties have been reluctant to vote for Republicans, and Native Americans have been nearly unanimous in sticking with Democrats.
In 2012, Barack Obama and Steve Bullock carried the central Rocky Boy polling place by 20 to 1 margins. Sen. Jon Tester carried the district by an incredible 250-to-1 ratio.
One Native political leader told me that Tester and Rehberg attended last summer’s powwow. Tester laughed and danced at the grand entry, while Rehberg shook a few hands and awkwardly left.
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said that to get people’s vote, the first thing you have to do is ask them.
Many Natives think Republicans haven’t asked.
As a result, Bullock and Tester won, largely because of the overwhelming Native vote.
The GOP has a steep uphill effort to get the Indian vote, but some Natives feel they have an opening since many Indians, especially older ones, are open to Republican views on some social issues, especially abortion. Republicans, they feel, could do a better job of weeding out corruption on the reservations.
On other issues, most Native Americans remain firmly in the Democratic camp. On issues such as food stamps, which many on the reservation depend on for survival, and issues such as bison, water rights and a host of other issues, the GOP is still at odds with most Native voters.
Clearly, Daines won’t carry Rocky Boy or any other reservation this fall. But we’ll bet that he does better than Rehberg did.
It would be good for Republicans to attract even a few Native American votes. And it certainly would be good for Natives if parties had to compete for their vote.
Republicans have to overcome a century of well-earned distrust, but Steve Daines has taken the first step.
He showed up.
(John Kelleher is managing editor of the Havre Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 406-265-6795, ext. 17, or 406-390-0798.)