GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Montana Democrats say they're taking a first-of-its kind approach to include more Native Americans in party decisions.
The state party voted last week to establish tribal committees, like county central committees, whose delegates vote on the party’s platform, rules and officers and nominate candidates for special elections.
The move increases the number of Native Americans involved in decision-making to match their proportional share of Montana's population, party officials announced.
Executive Director Sandi Luckey said Montana’s Democratic Party is the first state party in the country to create a formal role for Native Americans based on population.
Party treasurer Donavon Hawk, a state representative from Butte, said creating the tribal committees is another step toward making sure tribal communities have the representation they deserve.
“This isn’t just about having a seat at the table, it’s about delivering results that improve health care, infrastructure and the economy for American Indian Montanans across the state," Hawk said in a statement.
The eight tribal communities will have two delegates each to the Montana Democratic Party's platform, rules, officers and special nominating conventions. There will be tribal committees to represent the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Peck, Fort Belknap, Rocky Boy's, Blackfeet and Flathead reservations and the Little Shell-Chippewa tribe.
The Flathead, Fort Peck and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have selected their delegates.
“The biggest thing we’re fighting is voter apathy," said Patrick Yawakie-Peltier, a delegate from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. "When we create a platform that resembles tribal issues, we hope tribal members see there’s a place in the Democratic Party for them, and there are Native leaders who will ensure their voices will be heard,” he told the Great Falls Tribune.
Democratic Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder said he was pleased to see the party formalize a role for Native Americans because “Democrats have taken for granted the Native vote.”
“Historically, if you take a look at the races, the Native vote swings elections. But we really haven’t had much communication or assistance from the Democratic Party. So this rule change is a good deal. It’s about time,” Windy Boy said.
The Democratic Party previously had no delegate votes designated specifically for Native Americans, Luckey told The Associated Press.
Prior to last week's rule change the Montana Democratic Party had three voting delegates at state conventions who were Native American, she said. Voting delegates generally include the party’s executive board members, leaders of the county Democratic Central Committees, legislative leadership and Democrats who hold statewide elected office.
At the next convention there will be 16 more Native Americans, giving them a 7% representation in party decisions, matching the percentage of Montana's population that is Native American, Luckey said.
Democratic Sen. Susan Webber of Browning said this is the first time she can remember the party including tribes in their decision-making.
“They’re acknowledging that we have a strong voice in elections. It’s a really cool thing,” she said.
This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Donavon in the 5th paragraph.