North American Indian Days is the biggest summer event on the Blackfeet Reservation. There’s a rodeo, there’s a powwow, there’s hand games and a parade, and even some politicking. For one congressional candidate, campaigning at Indian Days feels a lot like coming home.
"This weekend we're at Native American Indian Days in Browning, my hometown, so it was a really nice homecoming," says Denise Juneau, current state superintendent of schools.
She’s also running for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. If elected, the Democratic hopeful would become the first female Native American elected to Congress.
Unlike other candidates stumping in Indian Country, Juneau says her upbringing on the reservation means she connects with Native American voters differently from other candidates.
"I've worked in these communities, I'm from there, I have family there," she says, "so I want to make sure these communities rise up and have every opportunity that any other community does."
Juneau began courting Native American voters early, organizing an Indian Country tour earlier this year where she spoke with members of Montana’s 12 Native American tribes on all seven of the state’s reservations. While past election results show Native Americans tend to vote as a block for socially liberal candidates, Juneau says she’s more focused on how she can advocate for each tribe’s particular issues.
"They need to decide for themselves as a government what they want to do with their people, and I think the people in Congress should be the ones who help pave that way," she says. "So, for the Crow if it's coal, I'm going to help them out with that. If it's here in Blackfeet and it's protecting the Badger-Two Medicine, I'm going to help with that. But I do think tribal governments have this sovereignty, that they really need to decide, and they need a good partner in Congress to make sure that no matter what the issue is that they want promoted that that person is there to do that."
Juneau is trying to unseat Congressman Ryan Zinke, who also walked in the parade in Browning. Zinke is from Whitefish, but along the route Juneau is hailed as a hometown girl.
"I graduated with Denise Juneau, she was my classmate," says Anthony David Gallagher Horn, a Browning local. "I'm proud of her. She's made her mark. The Indian vote's only strong, and I believe she will overcome him. I think she'll do real good."
Julene Kennerly is volunteer DJ for Thunder Radio on the Blackfeet reservation. She says candidates often miss the mark with Native American voters because they don’t spend enough time on reservations.
"Not as much as they should be, because this is a place that carries a lot of votes."
Kennerly says Juneau has made it a point to campaign on Blackfeet, but adds that her support of Juneau is only partly because of the Democrat’s Native American background.
"It isn't just because you're Indian, it's what you can do too," she says, "and that's why my belief, it doesn't matter what race you are, it matters what you can do for your people and everybody is your people."
On a flatbed trailer on the corner of First and Central, Mike Chavez watches the parade with two friends. They drove up from the Crow reservation for North American Indian Days and aren’t surprised when staff from both Juneau’s campaign and her opponent, current Republican Representative Ryan Zinke, try to hand him bumper stickers.
"Twenty years ago you wouldn't have seen no politician driving in the parade here, but now they're starting to realize that," he says.
But face time with candidates is still minimal, he says.
"I mean, stopping through for a half hour to have coffee with the locals isn't exactly trying to fix things. We get that too, it's just politics," says Chavez.
That’s where Juneau has a leg up over other candidates campaigning on reservations.
"The fact that she is Native and she grew up around here, she does carry a lot of the values we carry with her, so that’s why, you know, we’ll definitely vote for her," he says.
But one of Chavez’s companions, who didn’t want to give his name because he’s up for reelection, said Republicans tend to support the Crow better than Democrats, especially when it comes to supporting coal development.
"I'm probably going to go Republican, because I've actually seen what these guys have done. Denise, yeah she's Native and stuff, and just being Native, I don't know what her agenda is."
Juneau spent the afternoon visiting family and walked in the Grand Entry at the powwow Saturday night, while Zinke wrapped up the parade and went home to visit family.