American Indians Mobilize to Get Out the Vote

The United States Republican and Democratic parties have set up camp next door to each other in the Navajo Nation. Both anticipate the upcoming presidential election to be tight, and they're starting to understand the importance of potential American Indian votes in key swing districts. So are American Indians.

"There has been and increased amount of political activity and voter registration efforts, this year more than ever before," said Alyssa Burhans, a member of Oregon's Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the organizing director for the Native American Voters initiative, operated by National Voice. "There are very sophisticated voter projects as well as grassroots, all-volunteer ones."

Burhans works closely with the National Congress of American Indians non-partisan Native Vote 2004 campaign and the Moving America Forward Foundation. Together, the two organizations have held nine voter empowerment trainings across the country.

"We've been successful at getting people excited," Burhans said. "The challenge is resources that people don't always have access to. But I always think that Natives are pretty darn creative."

American Indians officially gained the right to vote with the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, but many states did not comply with the act. Natives in Arizona were the last to obtain voting rights in 1964.

"The first Americans were the last to be granted voting rights," says Russ Lehman in a report for the First Americans Education Project titled "The Emerging Role of Native Americans in the Electoral Process."

But even when American Indians won the right to vote, many refused to go to the polls. "After the oppression suffered by generations of Native Americans at the hands of the federal, and some state governments, to vote in an election of non-Indians where the voting public was comprised of overwhelming majorities of non-Indians, was perceived to be of little value," Lehman says in his report. "In addition, because of the perception that participation, which requires identification, would be a relinquishment of tribal identity, many tribal members refused to register."

Burhans says the question of sovereignty is an important consideration to those trying to get out the vote in 2004.

"We are our own sovereign nations, but are also within the borders another country," she said. "Decisions that are made at the federal level affect our people every single day. If we don't elect people and hold them accountable, my personal opinion is that we undermine our sovereignty."

"We never asked the government for the right to vote—we were forced to become citizens of this country and then told we had to vote," Lakota member Nick Tilsen commented in How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. Nevertheless, Tilsen got involved in engaging eligible voters from the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 2002 South Dakota senatorial election. He and other volunteers organized rides for people to get to the polls, where access to vehicles and gas money is a significant inhibiting factor to voting. That year, Lakotas swung the election toward Democratic Senator Tim Johnson by a margin of 528 votes.

"I don't think tribes realize that they've got the power that they have," said Wil Phinney, editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal in Pendleton, Oregon. "I think they are now realizing their potential. They have to be involved as players. If they're not, somebody's going to make that decision for them."

As part of a 2000 tribal resolution, Umatilla members have placed voter registration forms everywhere that services are available, moved a ballot box so it is near a local tribal store, run public service announcements on community radio stations, and conducted voter registration drives.

"The older generation is tougher, they've grown up when times were rougher, and they've got too much distrust to change their minds," said Lisa Gananuelas, who has participated in the efforts. But she said she has found that the younger generations are the most enthusiastic.

Native youth have huge potential as voters—about half the populations of the Pine Ridge Reservation and Navajo Nation are under age 25. Concert campaigns like the Rock the Native Vote and Rock the Rez Vote tours aim to engage youth in voting.

"This is a critical election, especially for Native peoples," said Robby Romero, whose band is on the road with Rock the Rez Vote. His band Robby Romero and Red Thunder has performed and spoken along with Native leaders, traditional drum groups, and local artists. "There are issues at play that will have a direct impact on life in indigenous communities throughout the world, such as the protection of sacred sites, human rights, and the environment."

Romero said he has been inspired by the young people he has met since the tour launched on October 15. "The desire to participate in the process coming from our indigenous youth, though they are not of voting age, tells the story," he said.