During the Arlee Powwow over the 4th of July weekend, Bruce Meyers, the only Native American Republican in Montana’s legislature, stood along the outside of the celebration dance floor introducing his party's candidate for governor.
"Yeah. Gianforte. Like a fort."
That’s Meyers talking with Vance Home Gun. Home Gun had just finished teaching Bozeman software entrepreneur Greg Gianforte how to play the Hand Game in preparation for a match later in the afternoon vs. the tribal chairman.
Home Gun is in his early twenties and works for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes as a cultural instructor. He says he appreciates elected officials and candidates coming to listen to what Montana’s Native communities have to say.
But, when it comes to his own political beliefs, Home Gun is conflicted.
"If I wasn’t an Indian, I’d probably be full on Republican. But since I am an Indian and I tend to see major support from the Democrat side, I gotta support that. Cause they want to build a bridge with the Nations. And they want to keep that bridge strong; and they believe in our Indian people, and they believe that our culture is still valuable. And the Republican side ... Honestly it's tough.”
Home Gun says he sees his community becoming more knowledgeable about political issues, and with better turnout, the Native vote could make or break a candidate.
He says younger tribal members have an easier time agreeing with the Republican message, but pointing out to the bleachers around the powwow dance floor, he says just about everyone there votes Democrat.
"Maybe they do it because they always see people who claim to be Democrat, they’re always present, willing to listen. You always hear Democrats. And even me growing up in these 23 years of life so far. My whole growing up I’ve always seen people say 'I’m a Democrat and these are the issues I care about, and I want to hear your concerns.' Rarely have I ever heard a Republican do that.”
Greg Gianforte introduced himself to many at the Arlee powwow by hosting a lunch of hamburgers and hotdogs he helped serve out of a mobile BBQ trailer.
The Republican candidate for governor didn’t talk much about politics or policy. He smiled a lot, wore a nametag, and placed pre-sliced cheese on burgers.
Gianforte even walked in the powwow grand entry. He was surrounded by people in elaborate regalia, dance outfits and headdresses. Gianforte wore a short sleeved plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans and he carried a large feather.
"I think it comes back to making yourself available and making yourself vulnerable and being here. Representative Bruce Meyers is with me. It was one of his first invitations. I was lecturing at Carroll College in Helena, and Bruce called me out of the blue and said, 'what are you doing in Helena, you should be up here on Rocky Boy because we’re the ones who need the help.' And on his invitation I went. From there we went to Fort Belknap. Then I got a separate invitation to Fort Peck, and an invitation to the Northern Cheyenne. I know enough to know I can’t show up and just start telling people what to do. That is not what the Native community wants. We came here today to serve. We served a meal and it was a way to build a bridge and start a dialogue."
When I asked Gianforte about Native American voters leaning Democratic, and what the Republican party would need to do to change that, he said we needed to stop calling people names. He says calling people a Republican or a Democrat is pejorative.
"You know anytime we start calling people names we are going to get in trouble. No matter what the name is: left, right, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat. And for me the fact that we are dead last in the country for wages for young people is not a political issue, it is a Montana issue. We need to do more to bring prosperity to people here on the reservations."
Gianforte is running largely on an economic platform to bring high wage jobs to Montana. That’s a message he hopes will resonate on and off reservations.
"As you travel to the reservations here in the state, you see the need for more jobs. And as I talk to individuals, this is why I’ve been on all of the reservation in the state. People want to stand on their own feet and support themselves, and I’d like to bring that sense of hope and a pathway to prosperity to every single Montanan."
Although Democrats are considered to have more support than Republicans among Native voters in Montana, a shift in that balance could swing an election.
Carroll College Political Science professor Jeremy Johnson says Native Americans make up about 8 percent of Montana’s population.
"If that was fully mobilized, it would certainly be a significant force in Montana politics. And it is my understanding that the Native American population is increasing faster than other parts of the population in Montana," Johnson says.
Montana’s political parties are starting to put more effort in to secure the Native vote.
Montana’s Democratic party recently hired a Native vote director and is recruiting tribal field organizers to work on all seven of Montana’s reservations.
On the Republican side, events like the BBQ feed at the Arlee powwow aim to engage GOP party members with Native communities.
"There has been a long time distrust, historical distrust with all politics in general in many of the reservations, which has helped depress the vote. Native Americans were given the right to vote in 1924, but for many years in Montana there was sort of systematic discrimination against Native American voters. Montana early on had a law not allowing Native Americans to vote. Polling places were not put on reservations for many years. There have been lawsuits about this over the Voting Rights Act. So, there certainly are trends to get Native Americans more involved. Historically again, more Democratic. But the Republicans are working on outreach"
Native GOP lawmaker Bruce Meyers says decades racial of discrimination, on both sides, have prevented an understanding between tribal members and the Republican Party.
"We were taught growing up that anything white, rich, or Republican — don’t trust them.
"And likewise, a lot of my peers, Caucasian white peers, they were taught the same thing. They were taught anything Indian, don’t trust them."
He says there is an invisible wall in Montana dividing whites and Natives, and that wall limits growth in state politics.
Meyers says the message of the Republican Party has a lot tribal members can relate to: belief in a creator, sacredness of life, control of education by parents and elders, and strong support of the second amendment. But, if the Republican Party wants the support of Native communities, he says they’ll need to work for it.
And that’s what the BBQ feed was about. There were a handful of white Republican men standing on a platform trying to be elected or re-elected to public office, but they weren’t talking about politics, they were serving burgers and occasionally asking, do you want cheese with that?
"I urged the Republican Party to come out of their comfort zone. I said the destiny of the Republican Party is dependent this year on how much you are willing to come out of your comfort zone. So I made a personal challenge to them to come out and to forget their prejudices."
Meyers says he will encourage Republican candidates to continue making appearances in celebrations and powwows around Montana over the summer.
On July 7, just days after Gianforte visited the Flathead Reservation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes signed a resolution endorsing incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Bullock for re-election.