North Dakota tribes are working together to propel Heitkamp to victory

"Even though we are sovereign nations, we all rise together. It is actually a beautiful thing.”

Myra Pearson, chair of Spirit Lake Nation at her desk at the tribe's enrollment office in Fort Totten, ND on Nov. 1, 2018. (Credit: Danielle McLean for ThinkProgress)
Myra Pearson, chair of Spirit Lake Nation at her desk at the tribe's enrollment office in Fort Totten, ND on Nov. 1, 2018. (Credit: Danielle McLean for ThinkProgress)

ST. MICHAEL, NORTH DAKOTA — North Dakota’s Native peoples are united behind Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and determined to translate that support into votes on Tuesday, despite the state’s restrictive voter ID laws that is making it harder for them to cast ballots, elected leaders of two tribal nations said.

That’s because Heitkamp (D-ND) has listened to Native voices, while her Republican opponent Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and other leading Republicans — including President Trump — are viewed negatively by many tribal people.

Heitkamp’s “got the support. I know Cramer might have a couple of people but she’s got the support,” Myra Pearson, chair of Spirit Lake Sioux tribe, told ThinkProgress.

“I think our people now are woke and they are standing up and they are not only getting out to vote but they are also looking at all the candidates,” said Jamie Azure, chair of Turtle Mountain Nation. He estimated 70 to 80 percent of the tribe votes Democrat, which is why Republicans targeted Native Americans with the voter ID laws.


However, their efforts have backfired, said Azure. So far, Turtle Mountain has issued 2,000 new IDs since the 2016 election, meaning far more tribal members will be able to vote on Tuesday than did two years ago.

Now several North Dakota tribes, including Standing Rock and Spirit Lake nations — both Sioux tribes — Turtle Mountain, a band of Chippewa Indians, and three-affiliated tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (which make up MHA Nation) are all working together to fight the ID laws and get their members to the polls, in a rare joint effort.

“I think the powers that be underestimated the tribes and our willingness to rise when we are presented a challenge, even in a reactionary mode,” said Azure.

“The events of North Dakota over the past five years have really united the tribes of North Dakota more than we ever have been. So even though we are sovereign nations, we all rise together. It is actually a beautiful thing.”

O.J. Semans, co-executive director of the Native American voting rights group Four Directions, added: “Just like World War I and World War II, these nations joined together for the common good.”


North Dakota’s Native American population was largely credited with Heitkamp’s narrow election upset in 2012. Shortly after, the state’s Republican legislature passed a law requiring voters to present IDs with a residential mailing address when voting.

Because many tribal members do not have a formal mailing address on reservations and instead rely on PO boxes, the law effectively stripped many Native Americans of their voting rights.

Both Pearson and Azure said their tribes have worked with Democrats and Republicans in the past and will support those that support their land and people. Azure said he has a great relationship with North Dakota’s Republican Gov. Douglas Burgum.

“I will never go out and say I am against Kevin Cramer and I am against any Republican. What I will say is that we think about what is best for the Native Nation. Whether it is a Republican, Democrat, or an independent,” he said. “People don’t take it as Republican versus Democrat. It’s who will help the next generation of Native Nations.”

But because Republicans in the state have tried to take away their voice, the Native people will stand up for their rights.


“I’ve been here long enough to put up with this crap and work my way through it. They will never break me, I know that. Try all you want, but you are not going to stress me, not going to hurt me,” Pearson said.

There are a number of other reasons why members of the Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain tribes support Heitkamp over Cramer. For one, tribal leaders say, Heitkamp is approachable and willing to listen to their concerns, even when they don’t always agree.

“I know I can always visit with her, I can talk to her,” Pearson said. And Heitkamp has personally made a number of visits to various tribes and actively asked for their vote.

Meanwhile, Cramer has not visited the reservations and even has shown a history of hostility towards the tribes, she said.

One of the biggest issues facing the native people is violence against women and children. In 2013, as a U.S. Congressman, Cramer once remarked prior to the passage of the Violence Against Women Act that he wanted to “wring” a former female Spirit Lake Tribal Council’s “neck and slam them against the wall” because he disagreed with tribal provisions they had been advocating should be included in the law. Heitkamp, on the other hand, has pushed bills that aim to curb violence against women.

“Their opinion was formed right there, when he said that to one of our Native women,” Pearson said. “He’s not going to get any support out here. She’s going to get all the support out here.”

Azure said members don’t agree with all of Heitkamp’s positions, but he tells members not to base their opinion of a politician on a single issue, rather to look at their overall voting record and big picture.

Heitkamp has helped the reservation get federal grants to fix up their roads and has paid attention to the high rates of indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing.

Heitkamp “is one of the delegates that’s here and actually thinks about reservations,” Azure said.

Pearson said Spirit Lake tribal members have become resilient when faced with new obstacles thrown at them by the state and federal governments, she said. The ID law is just the latest obstacle.

When the U.S. Post Office closed branches nationwide, one of Spirit Lake’s branches, St. Michael, was among the first to shut its doors, forcing some people to drive 17 miles to get the nearest branch in order to get their mail.

Now they are trying to stop a hog farm that is attempting to open near Devil’s Lake, where the tribe is located, a move that would threaten the safety of the water.

“They will be destroying this water and contaminating it,” Pearson said. “We are not angry about it, but we’re doing what we think is right… We’re not going to let them tell us what to do.”

Tribal leaders say that today, one the biggest threats to Native Americans in the Great Plains region comes from the White House, which Cramer has actively supported.

President Trump in particular has a long history of attacking Native Americans. Most recently, he pushed through the Keystone XL pipeline after a months-long showdown between the fossil fuel industry and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmentalists.

But his hostility started in the 1990s, when he waged an aggressive and racist campaign to disrupt Indian casino gaming as he was looking to enter into the industry himself.

Standing Rock, Turtle Mountain, Spirit Lake, and MHA all have casinos on their land, which underwrite their Nations’ economies. Pearson believes Trump still wants control over the Native land.

“He’s president of the United States and he’s slowly making that circle smaller and smaller,” Pearson said.

“We hear threats of our land being taken away. Taking our land away and the Indian people not having that reservation boundary,” she said, adding, “We don’t have much here, but it’s home to a lot of people.”