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Native American Voters Can Make a Difference


The author, a member of the Upper Mattponi Tribe and a board member of the Women's Media Center, cites evidence of the potential power of the Native vote, particularly when concentrated in swing states in this presidential election.

Millions of Native Americans could affect the outcome of elections across the country this November. But we have to vote locally and nationally.

Perhaps our late entry into U.S. citizenship affects our lack of participation. It wasn't until 1924, after Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, that Native Americans were able to vote—at least in most states. That right didn’t come until 1948 in Arizona, 1952 in New Mexico and 1956 in Utah. 

We shouldn’t dismiss our potential power to change power structures.

Despite our small numbers Indians can provide victory or defeat. According to a 2008 Frontline/World story, a number of races were determined by the Native vote because of our geographic concentration.

• In 2002, Tim Johnson, the Democratic senator from South Dakota, was elected with little more 500 votes that came from the Pine Ridge reservation in the middle of the night.
• In 2004, Native voters helped elect Democratic Governor Brad Henry in Oklahoma, and in 2006, U.S. Senator John Tester of Montana credited Native voters with his win against Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.
• In 2000 Washington Senator Slade Gorton was ousted by Maria Cantwell after Natives viewed him as unfriendly to Native issues.

According to Native Vote, more than one million eligible Native Americans and Alaska Natives were not registered to vote in the 2008 elections—34 percent of the total Native population over 18.  Natives have the lowest participation rate in voting of any other ethnic group.  Native Vote is a project of The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and seeks to increase political participation and document such participation to draw awareness to American Indian and Alaskan Native issues.

In a blog post on Native Vote, NCAI president Jefferson Keel wrote, “Over the last century since securing our rightful place at the ballot box, Native people have remained one of the most disenfranchised group of voters in the United States… This should be considered a civic emergency – we should all be concerned: American Indians and Alaska Natives, tribal governments, state and federal governments, ordinary citizens.”

Keel is correct. The lack of Natives voting is a civic emergency because legislation on everything from healthcare to the environment profoundly affects Native people both individually and as sovereign nations. 

When Natives vote we protect our individual and tribal interests and ensure continued economic and political sovereignty. Voting as a means of maintaining our nations’ sovereign status should be reason enough to vote.

When Natives exercise our political muscle we have proven effective. Particularly in California, Native interests successfully defended tribal sovereignty in battles over gaming legislation. We should be just as vigilant in the voting booth to protect our individual rights.

Natives don’t vote for a number of reasons, many of them historical. In 1884 the Supreme Court declared that Indians “are not citizens,” and, in the absence of being naturalized, were not entitled to vote. Few paths existed to becoming citizens. They could become assimilated by means of the Dawes Act —which also functioned to break up community owned tribal land—or join the armed forces.  Voting was, and still may be, considered an act of treason by some tribal members. Accepting citizenship with the government that has broken treaties and promises may be equivocated with treason. Not registering to vote is an act of resistance in the face of historical registrations that concluded with the taking of land, removing of children to boarding schools and relocation of communities.

As with other marginalized groups, Natives also face voting access issues. We too have been subjected to voter suppression tactics, restrictive ID requirements, linguistic barriers and distant poll locations.

We should also want to be “the deciders.” Native Vote's Native Candidates http://www.nativevote.org/page/native-candidates section contains just two listing of Native Americans running for office—one for the Maine House of Representatives and another for the U.S. House from Navada. I hope there’s more both locally and nationally who have yet to contact the organization. To date only three Natives have been U.S. senators. 

Politicians, start courting us now, it’s estimated that the Native American population will reach 15 million by 2050. And this year, consider the Native populations in the nine swing states of the presidential election. If every Native person registered and voted as a block, we could determine the winner for the state:

Colorado 107,832
Florida 162,562
Iowa 24,511
Nevada 55,945
New Hampshire 10,524
Ohio 90,124
Pennsylvania 81,092
Virginia 80,924
Wisconsin 86,228

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