By Tim Leeds
Even if the election is overturned, a special election Thursday to fill a new seat on the Blaine County Commission may prove a point and improve relations between Native Americans and non-Indians, several of the candidates say.
"It will demonstrate to the county and state that Native Americans are interested in filing for this office," M. Dolores Plumage said.
Plumage is one of five Native Americans, all Democrats, who filed as candidates in the new commission district, made up mostly by the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The others are Janice Hawley, Carletta Benson, Ruben Horseman and Wesley Main.
A Republican write-in candidate would need 5 percent of the votes cast for the winner of the last commission primary election, or 35 votes, to be placed on the ballot in the general election, said Sandra Boardman, Blaine County election administrator.
The new district, which is about 90 percent Native American, was created after U.S. District Judge Philip Pro of Las Vegas ruled in March that the at-large voting system of Blaine County violated the voting rights of Native Americans. The county, which is 45 percent Native American, has never elected a Native American commissioner.
Pro ordered that the county draw up new districts, including one with a majority of Native Americans, and that people in each district can vote only for candidates in their district. In the at-large system, everyone in the county could vote in every commissioner election.
Blaine County appealed the decision on July 12 but was unsuccessful in delaying the election until its appeal is resolved. Decisions in federal appeals generally take about 18 months, but the amount of time varies, said Mountain States Legal Foundation lawyer Scott Detamore, who is representing Blaine County.
Benson, who ranches near Lodge Pole, said she is concerned that the appeal could invalidate the election, but she still wants to run.
"Every time there's a change you're going to have people that disagree, that don't want a change," she said. "But you have to have change for growth."
"It would be very discouraging" if the results were overturned in a year or two, said Main, a prosecutor in the Fort Belknap Tribal Court. "But just to show it could work I think two years would be more than enough time."
Hawley, who ranches north of Hays and owns a small business, said losing the seat wouldn't really bother her. What concerns her is that so few Native Americans are registered to vote.
"If we don't say anything and don't do anything ,things stay as they are. There's no improvement," she said.
A common thread in the campaigns of the candidates is improving communications and cooperation between the reservation's residents and other county residents, and between the reservation and county governments.
"There needs to be work done on race relationships between Indians and non-Indian people," said candidate Hawley.
She recalled some comments made during a public hearing on drawing up new county commission districts. "I heard some disturbing comments being made by both Indian and non-Indian people about each other and it really really bothers me," she said.
Main, who unsuccessfully ran for county commissioner in 1990, said the county and tribal governments need to coordinate when addressing local issues.
"There's so many of them," he said. "Our young people are probably the biggest ones to focus on."
Main said juvenile programs, economic development, social programs, law enforcement services, elder programs, road work and legislative issues are examples of efforts that could be coordinated. The coordination would strengthen the programs and could save both governments money, he said.
Plumage, a homemaker who has been involved in local and state politics for about 20 years, agreed with Main about the need to cooperate. Coordinating use of economic resources would help both the reservation and the rest of the county, she said.
Increasing interaction between the people on and off the reservation was another reason she decided to run.
"One of the biggest areas that I would like to address is communication," she said. "During this (lawsuit) it was evident that that is a problem. I would make regular visits to the tribal council and residents to find out what their problems are, and collaborate funds, and let them know that they are part of the county."
Benson said that would also be her policy.
"I would have an open door so everyone can talk and get to know one another and have a voice, have a say in what's going on," she said.
Hawley hopes to create better understanding among the people of the county.
"It just blows my cool," she said. "I've worked hard for my ranch and my home. We're just like everybody else. We have to work for what we have. I think we need to educate people about one another."
Horseman said he wants to address many issues and misconceptions about the reservation that were raised during the lawsuit. His reason for running is to have representation for the tribe on the commission, he said.
"I guess the whole thing is representing the people out here," Horseman said.
Cooperation in using the limited resources of both governments would be helpful to both, he said.
"My thoughts are if we work together we can probably enhance both sides and get more done," Horseman said.
Benson said that is also her reason for running.
"We're almost forgotten," she said.