By : Twyla B. Baker-Demaray
I have two sisters working for the Native Vote campaign in North Dakota right now. Ms. Prairie Rose Seminole is the director of Native Vote North Dakota, and Rebecca Smith is a Native Vote Field Organizer. They are two of the hardest working ladies I know. Watching these women work for a cause they believe in is nothing short of awe-inspiring. They travel extensively, work seven days a week, attend functions seemingly everywhere and all at once, and are infallibly upbeat and excited about everything they do. Rebecca does so while going to school and raising her babies. Prairie Rose represents and speaks at countless events, and I rarely know what part of the state she is calling from when I hear from her. As a good sibling does, I get swept up in the doings as well, which I am glad and honored to be a part of, and would likely do anyway given my penchant for all things civic. Through their work, I am on a first-name basis with people who I believe will be representing our state in very high places, very soon.
As a writer, it would be nice if I could sum up Native people’s relationship with the federal government and the voting process with a pithy metaphor or comparison; it’s far too complex and storied for that. The U.S. government granted citizenship piecemeal to different tribes and individuals (usually military veterans) up until 1924, with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act. Thus, the original people of this land we live in weren’t seen as citizens until then. This fact still astonishes some of my non-Native colleagues and friends when I tell them. In truth, for many Native people, citizenship wasn’t necessarily something we sought or wanted; for some, citizenship to the U.S. was simply another imposition of the majority culture attempting to further assimilate Native people.
Native people only came upon the right to vote in 1965 via the Voting Rights Act. This act disallowed the numerous methods of disenfranchisement used by various states, meant to keep Native people and other ethnic minorities from voting. Section 2 of the Act states, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure, shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color”. These rights, as one may have seen in the media lately, are being threatened in a number of states across the country right now, with new voter ID laws which for many, translate into a return to the 1950’s, effectively disenfranchising the poor, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled. I’ll chat more on this topic later; right now, I want to talk about why Indian Country needs to vote.
I repeatedly hear from Native people the frustration they feel over politics and the Native relationship to government. I have to say, I can’t disagree with the disenchantment people feel. Of any population on this Turtle Island, I would say that Native Americans have absolutely every reason not to engage in a system that has continually failed, and in all too many cases, violated them. Why would one want to be a party to that? You may have your own reasons, so I’ll just explain mine.
My dad would have been 27 years old at the time he was finally granted the right to vote (1965). He is an Army veteran, so he may have been able to vote prior to this time, however I imagine a young Native man in 1950’s and ‘60’s Midwest America likely would have faced plenty of push back (read ‘disenfranchisement’ along the lines of voter ID laws) in trying to vote. I don’t know the first time my father was able to vote; I do know my grandfather wasn’t able to, nor were any of my grandparents. Knowing this, I am glad that I have been exercising my right since I turned 18 and was legally able to do so. The fact that my family has only been able to vote for one generation would be reason enough for me, but it goes deeper than that.
Like I said earlier, Native people have plenty of reason to turn our backs on this system of representation; it’s easy to feel as if our single vote will not make a difference. I’m here to tell you that this is simply not so. Native people are the most legislated people in this country; I believe that it is not just important, it is absolutely imperative that we be engaged in the election process, given our unique relationships with the federal government. Like it or not, elected officials will be the decision makers for our healthcare, our land rights, our education, and our children’s futures – essentially everything that matters to us. We absolutely must have our voices be heard in the national arena, and must develop relationships with these leaders; I believe it is one step towards effectively exercising our sovereignty. I do not accept being dictated to as to ‘what’s good for me’ or my people; I want to define it. One of the most powerful steps I take in that direction, short of running for public office, is stepping into that polling booth and selecting who I want to represent me.
Another step you can take right now is to get informed. Find out where your polling location is, and who your candidates are, whether tribal, state, or national. Read their platforms and do a little research on what their views are on what matters to you. There are people out there who can help you, people like my amazing sisters, should you have questions about where to go to get registered. If you happen to live in one of those states with the ‘voter ID laws’, find out what you need to have on hand to vote; if you don’t have it, GET IT. Those who support these laws are counting on you not wanting to jump through the hoops; in your case, it is absolutely critical that you prove them wrong.
We are lucky in North Dakota in that we do not have to register to vote; however, we do need to show up. It is my wish that Indian Country shows up – that we step up in droves. I want this election season to break records in terms of the Native Vote; I want the rest of the nation to hear our voices sound loud and clear.