An affecting new video by Julie Garreau, director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, encourages tribal members to get to the polls and cast ballots. A collaboration that was shot and edited after work, on nights and weekends, with videographer Chris “Mo” Hollis, the 2-minute movie has a sense of urgency.
Currently voter turnout at Cheyenne River is low—12 to 18 percent according to Scott Davis, one of 13 tribal members, including Garreau, who appear onscreen. That means politicians can afford to ignore Native people, according to Chase Iron Eyes, another speaker.
Several who appear in the video link voting and sovereignty: Dr. Jim Garrett admonishes viewers that Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is a sovereign nation and needs to act that way. Lorraine Davis says, “This is our land. Own up to it. Take it back. The first step is voting.” Others who appear, like Denise Lightning Fire, Hazel Red Bird, Marcella LeBeau and Tammy Granados talk about making the world a better place for the generations to come.
“This film has its hand on the pulse of Indian country. You have areas with high Native American populations but low turnout,” commented O.J. Semans, Sicangu Lakota, head of voting-rights group Four Directions, headquartered on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. “If you don’t vote, politicians don’t have to listen to you. That’s not what you want. You want them to feel beholden to you when you send your leaders to negotiate with them. You want them to know who you are and honor the treaties.”
“People say Indians are apathetic about voting. But that’s not true,” added Garreau. “Instead, many of us feel county, state and federal governments are not really ‘ours,’ the way tribal government is. So we tend to vote only in tribal elections.” In the movie, Garreau made clear that all these governments affect the lives of Native people, who therefore need to participate in more than tribal elections.
The video and its message are not just for the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation or even just for Lakotas, according to Semans: “The movie makes sense on any Northern Plains reservation. Native communities in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and, to some extent Colorado, are in constant contact and dealing with similar issues. In fact, I’ll be showing the video at an upcoming tribal chairman’s meeting in Montana.”
Garreau will show the movie in community meetings around Cheyenne River and will create voter-engagement brochures to go with it. She noted that it’s a non-partisan message: “It’s not about voting a particular way. It’s about becoming an informed, engaged electorate. It’s about being empowered.”
She also said there’s work to be done to facilitate voting on Cheyenne River. It’s not yet clear that during this presidential-election year, reservation villages will have the same amount of early voting as the rest of South Dakota. “That’s not just an Indian issue,” she said. “Insufficient numbers of polling stations affect any thinly spread rural population.” There’s also local concern that holding tribal and national elections simultaneously, which occurs without a hitch on other reservations, will somehow be confusing on Cheyenne River.
Maida LeBeau makes sure viewers understand that voting may be a facet of mainstream culture, but Native people can make it their own. “It’s Lakota medicine—for change,” she says in the movie’s final moments.