Chase Comes at Night, who is Blackfeet, is a high school senior in Billings who wants to get more involved in politics.
“The issues that I would focus on addressing would be, most likely, poverty and just connecting our reservations and rural areas to the real world," Comes at Night says. "On the reservations it seems like it's more of a third world compared to what we live in.”
Comes At Night says when politicians, of any party, pass through tribal communities and reservations during the campaign season they often promise change. But once the race for votes is over and the winner is announced, they don’t come around as much.
“It does feel like they just stop by, get the vote and leave; shake hands," he says.
Comes at Night is a member of the year-old Billings Schools Tribal Council. It was set up last year to promote leadership among native students.
He and other members of the council attended a two day meeting in Great Falls last week called the Indigenous Movements Interchange. Its goal was to inspire indigenous political action.
Marci McLean is the executive director of Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, the organizations that put on the event. McLean said few native people in Montana have a history that’s included education about political involvement.
“1924 is finally when we got our citizenship," she says. "We were the first ones here and the last ones to get our citizenship. We didn’t get voting rights until 1965. And even after that, in some states, natives couldn't vote. So you add that on top of the deep mistrust of the government, government of any kind. So it’s taking a concept that is fairly new to our people and educating them about it.”
The interchange was open to anyone who wanted to attend. McLean said it drew mostly younger people, and students.
She says she’s seeing more younger native people wanting to learn about how to be a part of politics in Montana.
Marcos Lopez, who’s Nez Perce, said many of his classmates and other people in his community don’t trust that voting or getting involved in politics will do anything to help them.
“You don’t see change that benefits you," he says. "So it is disheartening. So you don’t believe in that system any more and you get the idea that you don’t have power, and so you don’t make an effort.”
Alissa Snow, the field Director for Western Native Voice, said one of the main goals of the Indigenous Movements Interchange is promoting education that can lead to a return of the power that Lopez said many people feel they’ve lost.
“There is still a huge disconnect between what happens at our state level and what happens in our local communities," Snow says. "Our community members just aren't informed and they aren't connected to policy, and they don't understand the impacts that policy has in our native communities.”
Participants in the Interchange got lessons on organizing with social media, understanding issues currently facing Indian Country, and how to turn issues they see on reservations and in their communities into policy and political action.
U.S. Democratic Senator Jon Tester made an appearance for a brief town hall on the second day of the conference, and fielded questions about how Congress is going to act on the growing reports of missing and murdered indigenous women, the lack of quality telecommunication services on reservations, and the funding status for the Indian Health Service.
It was a friendly and supportive environment for Tester, who is up for reelection this November.
Montana Native Vote and Western Native Voice are two separate non-profit organizations run by the same staff members. Western Native Voice is non-partisan. Montana Native Vote works to recruit Native political candidates for public office and describes itself on its Facebook page as an organization “Advocating progressive change in Montana’s Indian Country.”
N’zshonico Cummins,who is Northern Cheyenne and also a member of the Billings Schools Tribal Council, says when she votes for the first this year she’ll look for a candidate who she believes will follow through on the promises they make during their campaign.
“I wouldn’t vote for somebody that says they’re going to do this and change this when they’re not really trying a whole lot,” Cummins says.
All the students from the Billings Schools Tribal Council who attended the political activism conference said a candidate's ability to keep promises is a big deal, for some the most important thing, when they’re thinking about who they’ll vote for.