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CROW AGENCY— Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote received the honor Wednesday morning of casting the first ballot at one of Montana’s two alternate voting sites, this one set up in a corner room at the tribal administration building here.

The other is in Browning and serves the Blackfeet Nation.

“This is going to be convenient for our elders and our handicapped members,” said Old Coyote, 41, after turning his ballot over to Dulcie Bear Don’t Walk, Big Horn County election administrator. “People feel very comfortable here. We’re encouraging all tribal members to use this service so that our voices can be heard.”

He said about 7,000 of the tribe’s 13,500 or so enrolled members are eligible to vote.

He said he marked the names of the congressional candidates he believes will help the tribal people he leads. Asked who those candidates might be, Old Coyote said he’d keep his own counsel on his preference.

“We’ve been working hard to form relationships with all levels of government —  federal, state and local,” Old Coyote said. “We hope that will continue.”

Old Coyote identified another advantage to the early voting site: On Election Day, many Crow members will be attending — or competing in — the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Voting early ensures their voice is heard when the ballots are counted, he said.

Bear Don’t Walk will close her office in Hardin on Wednesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 30 to staff the Crow Agency site from 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. through 5 p.m. As the head of a 1.5 employee office, she has little choice.

“It’s a learning process for me, too,” she said. “It was a lot of work to move my whole office here, but it’s an exciting time, and I’m really excited for these voters.”

Among those voters Bear Don’t Walk expected to cast an absentee ballot Wednesday: her 74-year-old grandmother, Georgia Bad Bear.

According to a news release from Western Native Voice, which was providing food to volunteers working at the site Wednesday from a park across the street, the Crow Agency alternate polling site is the result of a voting rights lawsuit settled in June. Volunteers were also ready, said the organization’s field director, Verleen Holds, to offer rides to prospective voters.  And other groups — tribal and nontribal — were following suit.

Western Native Voice hopes to help turn out 55 percent of the Native American vote for the Nov. 4 election, said Liz Moran Stelk, WNV’s regional organizer.

“We are going to knock on doors and turn out voters so that they can see how useful early voting locations are,” she said. “People can avoid the long lines on Election Day.”

Inside the administrative offices, the voting process was fairly streamlined. Volunteers, including Crow Tony Pisano and Robyn Sprang of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, checked election records or the Montana Secretary of State’s website to ensure the voter was registered. After that, voters filed two-by-two into a room where Bear Don’t Walk distributed ballots and answered questions.

For most voters, the whole process took 10 minutes or less.

Spang, a descendant of Chief Dull Knife, brought along her smartphone to help voters navigate the website. “My daughter set me up this morning,” said the Lame Deer resident. “We want to make sure our voices are heard throughout the whole United States.”

“This is going to spread to other tribes,” Pisano predicted. “It’s going to help my children and my grandchildren.”

After he’d voted, Clayton Bad Bear, 65, who lives south of Hardin, said he believes the voting site “will make it easier for everybody.” He said he voted Wednesday just after he learned that the site had been established.

“I wondered, ‘what in the heck is all this?’ ” he said.

Old Coyote said that tribal officials will use every available method, including word of mouth, in order to get out the vote.

“We can’t be silent anymore,” Old Coyote said. “We vote to make a difference and to be part of a great nation.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.