Always fascinated by tornadoes, Matt Dannenberg dreamed of being a storm chaser one day. Instead, he got caught up in the whirlwind of politics.
Dannenberg, 28, is the founder and campaign director of Wisconsin Native Vote, part of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. It is a nonpartisan effort whose mission is to educate Natives on political issues and motivate them to get out and vote on Election Day.
“Our goal is to increase turnout, decrease barriers to voting, build leadership and give tribes tool kits to implement their own voter campaign engagements so we can hold our elected officials accountable on issues that we care about,” says Dannenberg, an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
According to the Native Vote website, the Native vote in Wisconsin is traditionally lower than the state average. But Dannenberg’s grass-roots efforts appear to be working. In 2014, after speaking to 7,500 Native American voters in their homes and at community events, overall voter turnout in these communities increased 31 percent—and a record 90 percent in the Menominee Nation.
For this presidential election year, he and his 12 paid staffers—all Natives— have gone to most every house on nine of the 11 reservations in Wisconsin to engage one-on-one with people. “While setting up tables outside of Walmart on pay day is very effective, knocking on doors is really important because people who are least engaged might be handicapped or uninterested in coming to a local event,” says Dannenberg. “A lot of people are surprised when they see us because some live in very remote areas, and access is the No. 1 barrier to voting. But they are grateful, too.”
He is hearing from Wisconsin Natives that the top issues are the environment and Dakota Access Pipeline. “I see people watching live streams from Standing Rock when I go into their homes. There is a lot of resentment that neither Clinton nor Trump have come out strongly against the pipeline.” Education and healthcare for veterans and the elderly are also big concerns, he says.
Dannenberg did not grow up on the Chippewa reservation or surrounded by Native culture at all. “I was a lost bird,” he says. At the University of Wisconsin?Madison, where he earned a degree in political science and environmental studies, and took 16 credits of American Indian Studies, he vowed to go back to his reservation one day to help his people.
In 2012 he got his chance working as an employee of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters to stop the Open Pit Mining Bill, which eventually was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker. “The Chippewa fought for three years over this iron mining legislation and won in 2012, but it passed early in 2013 after the elections,” says Dannenberg. The mine was never constructed, but this experience is what finally connected him with his people.
What truly drives Dannenberg is climate change and getting Native voices represented in government. “It was the major motivator for creating the Native Vote campaign. I want to build strong alliances between tribes and advocacy groups. We have an important and shared challenge to create a clean and clear environment for future generations.”
Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.