WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Beneath Window Rock in Navajo Nation, a memorial is dedicated to the "code talkers" of World War II, a group of Navajo soldiers who used their native tongue to create a secret code.
"If it wasn't for the Navajo code talkers, we would have not won World War II," said President of Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez.
Nez is proud of everything his people have contributed to the United States, despite everything that’s been taken away.
That is why he believes it’s only right to make sure the voices of the Navajo and the other 574 Native tribes are heard.
"We need the federal government, once again, to fulfill their obligation and to protect the rights of indigenous people in this country and that includes voting. It should be easier," he said.
Located in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, Navajo Nation is more than 27,000 square miles and is the largest Native American reservation in the country.
Getting around, in general, can be difficult but navigating to a ballot box for many is nearly impossible.
The truth is, Native Americans have to travel sometimes over 100 miles to get to a ballot box. That's crazy," said Jacqueline De Leon, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting injustices against Native communities.
She says that distance is not the only obstacle when it comes to voting in Indian country. Many homes on reservations do not have addresses and many people don’t get mail delivered to their house, making voting by mail tough.
Also, some Native people only speak their native languages. An act up for debate on the federal level would help bring down those unique barriers preventing indigenous peoples from voting.
"What this act does is creates a federal mandate that there have to be polling places on the reservation, and it also means that there are accommodations for people that don't have addresses and it gets them ways that they can register to vote," said De Leon.
What she is talking about is the Native American Voting Rights Act, which is right now being included in the larger John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
It would also make tribal ID cards viable for voting purposes and create a task force to keep tabs on inequities in the voting process.
Representative Cherice Davids of Kansas is a co-sponsor of the act. As one of the two first Native American women to serve in Congress, she says the act was intentional in addressing the needs of the country's indigenous citizens, especially when it comes to restoring faith in government.
"It's a huge step toward making sure that [Native Americans] feel like they've been heard and when you feel heard, it definitely can add to that sense of trust," she said.
Though some politicians have said the act will only open the door to voter fraud, the Native American Voting Rights Act has bipartisan support and hope is high it will pass.
For President Jonathan Nez, this means giving his people a chance to be heard that they may never have gotten before.
"We'll protect the Native American vote into the future, not just for us right now, but for our children, our grandchildren and future generations to come," he said.
Montana tribes have been plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits over the past several years centered around their voting rights.
A 2014 settlement led to satellite voting offices on reservations in Big Horn, Blaine, and Rosebud counties to reduce the distance voters had to travel for late registration and other services.
Separate legal actions last year led to satellite voting offices being opened on the Blackfeet Reservation in Pondera County.
Also in 2020, a Yellowstone County judge declared unconstitutional a 2018 state law that restricted who could collect ballots and limited the number of ballots that could be dropped off at one time to six. In the ruling, the judge said the law infringed upon tribal members' fundamental voting rights.
Following the 2021 legislative session, four Montana tribes and two nonprofits advocating for tribal voting rights sued over new laws that changed voter registration and the collection of absentee ballots.