Mark Wandering Medicine has sacrificed more than most for his country. He served six years in the US marines, fought through the bloodiest years of the Vietnam war and almost lost a leg when his scouting unit was ambushed near the North Vietnamese border in 1972. Since he returned home to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, however, he has received scant thanks for his service. He spent 13 years battling government bureaucrats before receiving his first disability payment. Like many Native Americans raised on desperately poor reservations in remote parts of the country, he has never lived far from the poverty line. Now he is fighting once more, this time to overcome a century and a half of disenfranchisement and secure voting rights for his fellow Native Americans. He has barely voted over the past 40 years, not because he hasn’t wanted to but because it is too difficult. The only sure way to register to vote, he says, is to make a 157-mile round trip from his home to the nearest county seat. There is no public transport, and most people can’t afford the trip – even assuming they have a working car with valid license plates and insurance, which is rarely the case. The few who do make the journey have to run a gamut of racism and hostility that, they say, can often land them in jail on charges of drunkenness and public disorder.
For decades, Wandering Medicine and his fellow tribal members took the fatalistic view that there was no point battling against a system that has always worked to exclude them. Now, with the Native American population growing faster than the rest of Montana but no end in sight to the well-established cycle of unemployment, poverty and alcohol and drug addiction, he and a handful of other combat veterans have decided enough is enough.
“We love our country, we do,” he says forlornly, a brightly colored marines ball cap perched on his head as he points out the dilapidated housing, broken-down trucks and stray dogs that characterise the streets of Lame Deer, the reservation’s main population centre. “But when is our country going to love us back?”