Call them the nearly forgotten electorate, whose members are working day and night to ensure that their voices will be heard at the ballot box.
In this season of intense, sometimes rabid political debate, Native Americans have been largely ignored by mainstream news media. They attract scant public attention and receive only the occasional nod from major presidential candidates.
“Of course, for Native Americans, invisibility’s always an issue, and it’s something that we have been very cognizant of,” said Gyasi Ross, an activist, author and member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation and the Suquamish Nation outside Seattle.
“Everybody’s paying attention to the effects of the Black vote, especially in Southern states, and then obviously, the Latino vote is extremely powerful. But we’re at a point where we have to figure out ways to leverage our vote,” Ross, who lives on the Suquamish Nation reservation, added.
Across the country, Native American community organizations have been working hard to do just that, mounting concerted campaigns to register voters, get out the vote and educate Natives about key issues important to them.
It’s a daunting task, in many cases, given many Native Americans’ distrust, disillusionment and disenchantment with the political process, the isolation of reservations and historically low turnout in local, state and national elections (even though most tribal adults vote in tribal elections).
And the stakes run high, with rampant poverty, unemployment, a lack of adequate health care, alarming youth suicide rates and alcoholism among many Native Americans, prompting advocates to call for more government aid to combat these ills.
The estimated 5.5 million Native Americans in the country comprise less than 2 percent of the nation’s population, but they could help decide close elections in states with high concentrations of Indians such as Alaska, New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington state and Oregon, advocates say.
In Albuquerque, the Native American Voters Alliance (NAVA) plans a major convention on March 30-31 during which it will raise issues important for Election 2016.
The organization is focusing heavily on educating voters through door-to-door canvassing and workshops on reservations, community meetings, sacred pow-wow ceremonies and even sessions in high schools, Laurie Weahkee, NAVA’s executive director and a member of the Diné, Cochiti and Zuni Pueblo tribes, said.
NAVA hopes students will not only become more informed about the political process themselves, but also help educate their families.
A Focus on Issues Affecting Native Communities
Among key national issues, Weahkee said: Raising the minimum wage; increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, better known as food stamps; ensuring Native American sovereignty (including the right to self-govern and maintain a government-to-government relationship, abiding by treaties with the United States); protecting Indian lands and natural resources; and expanding aid to foster economic development.
Native American voting outside of tribal elections, Weahkee said, remains a recent phenomenon. Natives gained U.S. citizenship in 1924, when most received the right to vote, but those in New Mexico could not vote until 1948. State laws governed Native Americans right to vote. In some states, they couldn’t do so until 1957.
The long history of Native disenfranchisement heightens the need for education about the electoral process and the power of the vote, Weahkee said.
“We do a whole lot of training on what power is and an analysis of power,” she said. “In our traditional languages, most of us don’t really have ways to describe the components of power, so when you ask people how would you say power in your traditional language, it doesn’t really translate. From a Native American perspective, power is more about tenacity and determination.
“So we need to show how money and knowledge and influence and the vote are all components of power, and it’s important to have those conversations about power and organizing money and organizing people. We have to move our people away from a position of isolation and disenfranchisement.”
The Washington, D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the biggest and oldest organization representing the interests of Native American interests, has launched Native Vote, an ambitious voter registration and education campaign.
Native Vote works with Rock the Vote, the national campaign to get young people to the polls, and numerous other organizations to help get out the vote among Native Americans. It also educates American Indians about candidates and their platforms in local, state and national elections and inform candidates of issues important to Natives.
The influential NCAI has organized tribal summits between Native leaders and President Barack Obama each of the past several years and regular meetings with cabinet members and members of Congress on American Indian issues.
The organization has also encouraged the 566 federally recognized tribes in the country to appoint a Native vote coordinator to get out the word on voting issues through social media, tribal newspaper articles, social gatherings, community meetings, pow-wows and by reaching out to school teachers.
Native Vote provides tool kits to help organize voter-registration efforts, posters that can be printed from its website, videos, radio and print ads and online training for Native election observers.
Robert Holden, NCAI’s deputy director and a coordinator of Native Vote, said it’s crucially important that Natives overcome apathy and distrust that have kept so many of them from voting.
Holden, a member of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, acknowledges that can be difficult for some, with one- to two-hour trips to get to polling places, often from isolated, rural communities, and impediments to voting like tightened ID requirements some can’t meet. (These include Natives with tribal IDs, sometimes not recognized as valid for voting.)
Education is key, he said, to getting Natives to the polls.
“What’s critical is the education to help folks understand the impact of voting as well as not voting, that those decisions are about Native peoples in terms of funding of health, education, environment issues, law enforcement,” he said. “The fact is that it’s the Native peoples, the citizens of Indian Country, who need to step up to the plate.”
Voting Matters, Especially in 2016
Voting – or not voting – also sends a clear message to candidates.
“If we don’t vote, then they know that we don’t count. If we’re uninterested, they think we don’t count, and they’re not going to push the things that benefit Native peoples,” Holden said.
Among key issues, he highlights health care: Each Native person receives, on average, less than half of what each federal prisoner receives from the U.S. government for health care.
“Native people say in the communities don’t get sick after July because there’s no money available for doctors, medicine or health care because the Native community federal funding runs out,” Holden said.
The long, shameful history of mistreatment of Natives by the U.S. government should propel them to vote, Holden said.
“We survived on this land for thousands of years,” he said. “We used to be the majority at one time, but there was the historically documented slaughter of our peoples.”
In more recent years, he said: “There were over 100 treaties signed between the U.S. government and the Natives – and over 100 treaties broken unilaterally by the United States. So there isn’t a vote of confidence in the federal government to protect our rights.”
Wizipan Garriott Little Elk, a longtime advocate for Native Americans who is a member of the poverty-stricken Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, pointed out the next president will likely nominate a candidate to replace the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and said the new justice could play a vital role in Native American interests.
Native Americans have suffered defeats in the high court on treaties with the U.S. government, sovereignty, tribal land rights and a significant loss in voting-rights case, Shelby County (Ala.) v. Holder.
“In recent history, we’ve had a U.S. Supreme Court that’s just been attacking and trying to obliterate Native rights,” said Little Elk, who served on Obama’s transition team in 2008 and now is CEO of the Rosebud Economic Development Corp., which fosters business growth on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
This marks the first presidential election since the 5-4 Holder ruling in 2013, in which the court weakened provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that stipulated states with a history of discrimination in voting rights had to get clearance from the federal government before changing voting laws.
OJ Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of Four Directions – a nonprofit, South Dakota-based organization that works with tribes in Arizona, Nevada, Montana, North Carolina, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota to ensure Native voting rights and to get out the vote – said that since the Holder ruling, numerous jurisdictions across the country have made it much harder for Natives to vote.
By imposing restrictive voter-ID laws; purging voter rolls; reducing late voter registration; moving polling places farther from Indian reservations and communities; adopting mail-only balloting (difficult for many tribes in rural areas with uneven mail service and, often, no traditional addresses); and refusing to provide translation services or other help to voters with language or other limitations.
Eileen O’Connor, senior counsel for the Legal Mobilization Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., said the Holder decision has hampered voting rights among Natives and other minority groups.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Lawyers’ Committee, created by then-President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to enlist the private bar in fighting racial and ethnic discrimination, has taken on Native voting-rights cases in at least a half-dozen states in Indian Country. Joining the committee in those efforts were the nonprofit, Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund and individual tribes.
“I continue to be surprised by how much work there is to do to guarantee equal access to the ballot for all eligible Americans; unfortunately, we are seeing obstacles to voting play out with various different minorities and disenfranchised groups, including Native Americans,” O’Connor said.
For his part, Little Elk says he sees the impacts of federal policy on Natives both far and near.
His 34,000-member tribe’s federal Indian Health Service-run hospital, which he said had been crippled by a lack of federal funding, lost its Medicaid and Medicare certification because of what he called “deplorable care.”
As a result, Little Elk said, ambulances now take patients to hospitals up to 100 miles away: “We don’t have an ER, and right now, we’ve had one death a week that we think is probably attributable to dying in an ambulance, and patients would have gotten to an ER much sooner if we had one here. People are literally dying.”
In Little Elk’s view, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s comments about people of color are a form of “racism” and are prompting many Natives to register to vote.
“We talk about the dream that people want America to be,” he said.
“It’s supposed to be a place where everyone has a voice. It’s supposed to be a place where everyone can freely take part in the civic system and take part in the electoral process and make their voice heard through their vote. But we still have a long way to go.”
Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The top photo is courtesy of the Native American Voters Alliance.
2016 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper