Standing Rock’s countdown to Election Day

With restrictive new voter ID laws, Standing Rock leadership is sent into overdrive.


Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn had at least three things to do before 5 p.m. She had to get across town to the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in time to figure out how to print more tribal IDs, do an interview with NPR, and lay the groundwork for get-out-the-vote door-knocking on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. It was 3 p.m. in Fort Yates, North Dakota, and Nov. 6 was a little more than two weeks away.

Each of Finn’s errands added up to one immense task: ensuring that the 4,000 Standing Rock citizens in Sioux County could vote on Election Day.

The external affairs director for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and an associate judge for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn was Miss Indian World in 2016, a four-day competition that tests one's knowledge of their tribe’s culture, language and skills.
Elena Saavedra Buckley/High Country News

“It’s just a lot of little battles!” she said, smiling, as she often does. Finn, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s 27-year-old external affairs director since April, has carried heightened responsibility and two constantly buzzing cellphones since the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in a restrictive new North Dakota voter ID law earlier this month.

Under this law, all citizens will need proof of a residential address in order to vote. In rural areas of the state — including the five federally recognized tribal nations inside its borders — residents often lack such addresses and use post office box numbers on their documents instead. In the past, including during this year’s primary, enrolled tribal members with tribal IDs could vote easily. The new law puts those voters in a bind and has sent Standing Rock leadership into what their chairman, Mike Faith, called “crisis mode.” 

“Come November, this will cause irreparable harm to the people of Standing Rock,” read a statement issued by the tribe two days after the Supreme Court ruling.

The five reservations in the state  Standing Rock, Spirit Lake, Turtle Mountain, Fort Berthold and a sliver of Lake Traverse — pockmark North Dakota with Democratic-voting precincts. “Not a light-color blue,” as Faith described it, “but heavy.” In a crimson state, that correlation has inspired a common interpretation of the GOP-championed law as a ploy to disenfranchise Native American voters and thereby influence a high-stakes Senate race. North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who met with Faith in Fort Yates after the ruling, has denied these claims. “Nothing sudden was sprung on anybody,” he said. (Matthew Campbell, a Native American Rights Fund staff attorney who litigated against the ID law, responded that he and his team “wholeheartedly disagree with that.”)

Now, less than two weeks before the election, with hundreds of residents in need of new documents, the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes are scrambling. They’re printing new IDs and issuing tribal voting “letters,” temporary papers with the Standing Rock seal and a member’s name, date of birth and an assigned address, for those who can only locate their residence by description.

The eleventh-hour mending has sent people like Finn into overdrive. In the weeks leading up to Nov. 6, she has had few minutes to herself, often holding a phone to her ear to answer voter’s questions, do an interview, or nail down information from the state. Even her rare moments alone were anxious.

“Overall, I guess I’m just worried,” she said.

A front yard sign in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Elena Saavedra Buckley/High Country News

Six years ago, it would have been hard to find a state friendlier to voters than North Dakota. The atmosphere of rural communities defined the laws: In small precincts, voters could arrive at the polls without an ID and fill out a ballot, as long as a poll worker recognized them from town. If that didn’t work, they could sign an affidavit, swearing under the penalty of perjury that they were qualified to vote. Then, as now, no one had to register. 

After 2012, when Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp won the election by 3,000 ballots, with strong support from Native communities, the state began cracking down. Poll workers could no longer vouch for voters, the range of acceptable IDs shrunk and the affidavit option disappeared. In 2017, Gov. Doug Burgum signed a new bill, affirming the need of an address. In April of this year, a federal district court judge ruled parts of the law unconstitutional, but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. The Supreme Court decided not to intervene.     

“It seems so obvious that it was meant to affect us,” Finn said of the law. (Finn, who graduated from Arizona State University’s law school, also spends time each week as an associate judge for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s drug court.) This year, Heitkamp is up for reelection, and her fate could determine which party controls the Senate.

At Standing Rock, though, the pushback isn’t based on the partisan slant many news outlets have used to frame the law. For one, Heitkamp’s reputation with some Standing Rock voters soured after the historic protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, which brought tens of thousands of people to the reservation. Heitkamp neither visited the camps nor expressed formal support of the demonstration.

“We don’t have a ‘shining light’ candidate,” said Phyllis Young, a Standing Rock tribal citizen whose activism began during the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s. She led the Oceti Sakowin Camp at the height of the #NoDAPL protests. Now, she is leading a voting coalition with the Lakota Law Project and Four Directions, a Native advocacy organization.

To Young, Finn, Faith and many tribal council members, this moment is another episode in an enduring battle to harmonize their tribal and U.S. citizenships  to protect their rights as North Dakota voters but defend their tribal sovereignty. A flashpoint may have spurred the actions at Standing Rock and elsewhere in North Dakota, but they apply to a historical, cyclical pattern of tribes being forced to defend their rights from outside powers. “I think that’s just something innate in Lakotas,” Finn said. “We are always going to be trying to progress in our own way.”

Finn worked for Sen. Heitkamp in 2013. Once, Heitkamp visited the Standing Rock town of Porcupine, where Finn grew up, and posted photos from the Paha Yamini Wacipi powwow to her Facebook page. She wrote that she was happy to see Finn, “a superstar intern in my office and hopefully someday will have my job as a senator.”

Finn doesn’t know if she could be a “D.C. Indian,” as she calls it; for now, she feels focused on helping Standing Rock navigate moments like this one. Activists like Young, whom Finn calls her grandma, helped raise her. “I think that I was taught really well to stand up and speak out against anything that hurts our people in any way,” Finn said.

This time, speaking out against the voting law comes down to determining something as basic as the address of an unmarked rural road. The demands of the ballot box are strangely banal, but, like the votes themselves, their weight comes from their sum.

Fort Yates, North Dakota

At a recent tribal council meeting, Chairman Faith sat in front of the Standing Rock seal, flanked by a semi-circle of 14 council members. Phyllis Young sat at the table in front of them, along with OJ Semans and Bret Healy from Four Directions, who are working on mapping unmarked residences.

“On a cold November day,” Healy said, addressing the council, “we want to make sure the only thing you have to worry about is keeping the pens warm enough that they write.”

Finn walked back and forth between the chairman and Young, sending emails in between.

Some councilmembers asked Semans and Healy about specifics. Will the tribal voting letters actually be accepted? Would there be a problem if one councilmember’s nephew came along to vote, but the utility bill brought to prove his address only listed the name of his uncle, the councilmember? They answered what they could.

“I honestly think this is going to have the reverse effect that the state thinks,” said Courtney Yellow Fat, a councilmember from Fort Yates. “We’re very stubborn people as well, and we’ll vote in spite of this.”

Awareness of the ID issues trickled into town from the council building and the news. At the AJ Agard Community Center across the river, Ciara Chase Alone and Cody Wasinzi, two young employees with the reservation’s Head Start program, drank coffee at a long card table. Both believed the law targets Native voters. “The state wants Republican dominance,” Wasinzi said.

At the BIA enrollment office, technician Jamie Agard was tallying those who’d come in to get a new ID. There had only been eight in the last two days, but she thought it would ramp up. 

When Finn finally arrived at the enrollment office on Friday afternoon, she brought a list of chunky technical questions for Agard from the tribe’s director of information technology, who wanted to set up a second printing station. By then, though, Agard had already gone home.

If Finn was frustrated, it didn’t show. She returned to the council building and would soon drive an hour home to Bismarck. She still had work to do finishing multiple court orders for Cheyenne River over the weekend, squeezing them in between a Heitkamp rally at Standing Rock’s Prairie Knights Casino; the campaign wasn’t sending many staff members to set up, so Finn offered to help.

Finn entered the council building to tie up some loose ends. She checked on a rogue GoFundMe page, supposedly dedicated to fundraising for Standing Rock but which had never contacted the tribe. It harked back to the days of the pipeline demonstrations. “People made money off of Standing Rock all the time,” she said. “That’s fresh on our minds, so we have to be protective.”

Gathering her things, Finn remarked, jokingly, that she sometimes wonders how the tribe functions with everything that’s thrown at it. Her constant busyness  the buzzing phones, the endless to-do lists, the unexpected meetings and encounters with media  seemed to embody the shower of responsibilities Standing Rock members, like Finn, are facing in the countdown to Election Day. Her endless work answered her own question. But Finn’s main goal, the way she put it, was strikingly simple. 

“I want my grandma to be able to vote without jumping through 50 hurdles,” she had said. “That’s honestly what I want.”

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.