Why we must continue to Rock the Native Vote  


By Winona LaDuke

It’s 2020 and the stakes are high.  In every area of civil society, from the rights of women, the right to clean water, the right to security of home, immigration, and the right to a future, the American election in 2020 will count. Being president of the U.S. is like being president of the Free World, and the Trump Administration has put the world on edge. In this upcoming election, every vote matters. (Trump did not win the popular vote in 2016, he assumed power by winning the Electoral college vote.)

Over the past four years, Republican and corporate interests have been pushing to disenfranchise millions of voters, particularly voters of color who would most likely vote Democrat. As it turns out, the Native vote could influence election results in seven swing states: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Colorado, according to data from Four Directions, a National Native American research institute.

“We can make a difference,” said Renee Lenore Fasthorse Iron Hawk (Cheyenne River Sioux). “There are swing states that will make a difference. We can and have mobilized our vote when it matters.” 2020 will matter.

The Native American population is 6.8 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau information from 2018. While that is relatively small compared with the U.S. population (330 million), the Native American population has more than doubled the growth rate of the U.S. From 2000 to 2016, the U.S. population grew 14% while the American Indian and Alaskan Native population experienced 35% growth. Those Native people are going to vote, and a lot of those people are in rural areas, where Republicans have come to feel comfortable because Native people have not voted.

August 2019 saw the first National Native American Presidential Forum, attended by most of the Democratic candidates except Joe Biden. Tribal leaders, journalists and attorneys put candidates on the spot, asking for some answers. Iron Hawk said a new “awakening” of political activism in Native American communities is prompting candidates to respond.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, (and until he dropped out of the race, Julian Castro) all unveiled detailed Native American policy proposals. Amy Klobuchar, despite being from Minnesota with its eleven tribes, did not develop a platform.

While most of the attention has been to the lack of funding for basic Native American services, guaranteed under treaty agreements, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, federal-tribal relations, were key issues. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have come out squarely against the Line 3 and Keystone XL Pipeline projects, as a part of both their climate policies, green new deal work and support for Native people.

Warren, Sanders, Castro and Williamson all supported the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribal communities to prosecute non-tribal perpetrators – a population responsible for 96% of violent sexual crimes against Native American women.

The historic midterm election of 2018 changed the playing field when Reps. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), and Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) became the first Native American women to serve in Congress. In September of 2019, Kimberly Teehee became the Cherokee Nation’s first delegate to the U.S. House. And in Minnesota, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Anishinaabe) became the highest elected Native in state office nationally. And Paulette Jordan narrowly lost the governors election in Idaho, after serving years in the Idaho Legislature. Adversity is the norm with Native people, and rocking the vote is one of the anecdotes.

Repressing Native Representation
Deprived of the right to vote until l962 in many states, Native people are just beginning to roll out political power in state and federal elections. “They didn’t give us the right to vote until we were 1% of the population”, John Trudell, the Santee philosopher and musician, would remind us – noting that if Native people had the right to vote in the l800s things might have been different. Native Americans were not citizens of the US until l924. When African Americans won citizenship with the 14th Amendment in 1868, the government interpreted the law so it didn’t apply to Native people.

“I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me,” Michigan Senator Jacob Howard told Congress at the time, according to the Native American Voting Rights Coalition.

Native people remain as separate nations but are subjected to state and federal policies which have destroyed sacred sites and Native people. Native people were only able to win the right to vote by fighting for it state by state. The last state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native people was Utah in 1962. Despite these victories, Native people were still prevented from voting with poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation – the same tactics used against black voters.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped strengthen the voting rights that Native people had won in every state. However, the act is no longer fully intact. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder dismantled one of its key provisions, which required that states with a history of racial bias in voting get permission before passing new voting laws. Just before the 2018 midterm elections,  the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a new voting requirement that may prevent hundreds of Native residents from voting.

Enter North Dakota
During the battle over Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, North Dakota state representative Alvin Jaeger (Republican) decided that it was time to deny Native people the right to vote. In this case, the focus was on voters without a street address (those who received their mail at the post office). This is particularly significant in rural counties where post offices have been closed by budget cuts, but it most deeply impacts Native people. Most often tribal housing projects do not have individual postal addresses, but instead most tribal members get their mail at the post office.

As NARF explains on its website: While North Dakota claims that tribal IDs qualify under its law, most tribal IDs do not have a residential address printed on them. This is due, in part, to the fact that the U.S. postal service does not provide residential delivery in these rural Indian communities. Thus, most tribal members use a PO Box. If a tribal ID has an address it is typically the PO Box address, which does not satisfy North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID law. In both the primary and general election in 2014, many qualified North Dakota tribal voters were disenfranchised because they only had a tribal ID.

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) filed Brakebill v. Jaeger in 2016 on behalf of a group of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa tribe, alleging that North Dakota’s voter identification law discriminates against Native voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland agreed, twice – once in 2016 and again in 2018 – and both times issued injunctions blocking portions of the law. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled against the Native community and for Jaeger, affirming discriminatory voting practices in North Dakota. This insured, according to court documents, that nearly 2,300 Native Americans were denied voting rights in 2018.

That’s when some heroic work began. Native people, infuriated by the continued denial of voting rights, rocked the 2018 election. That’s what we saw nationally with the election of Haaland and Davis and even more so in North Dakota. Republicans targeted Native voters in North Dakota because the Native vote had been instrumental in electing Heidi Heitkamp as the first woman to represent that state in the US Senate.

North Dakota (after the brutality and militarization against Standing Rock has well-earned its name as the Mississippi of the North) seems to have awaken a sleeping giant of Native voters. Native turnout was actually higher than 2012 in several places. The high turnout was not enough to save Heitkamp, as the state’s electorate has shifted significantly right of where it was six years ago – but at the legislative level, angry Native voters flipped at least three red seats blue, including state House Majority Leader Al Carlson.

In the most poetic justice imaginable, Randy Boehning, the four term state GOP representative who had sponsored the law which disenfranchised Native voters, was unseated by Democrat Ruth Anna Buffalo. In 2020, the state of North Dakota came to an agreement with the Native nations. On February 14, 2020, North Dakota and the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes came to an agreement which addresses  many of the lingering concerns that the state is enabling “mass disenfranchisement” of tribal members.

“This settlement, if finalized, will make it easier for Native Americans to vote,” Tim Purdon, a lawyer for the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, said in a news release. Under the proposed agreement, the state would bear the burden to assign and verify street addresses ahead of an election. Many people receive mail at post offices as the rural nature of tribal housing is often complex in exact addresses. Under the new agreement, tribal citizens would be allowed to identify where they live using a map, and state and county officials would then work with the tribe to determine the proper address for the voter.

Since many tribal nations are remotely located from state offices, the North Dakota Secretary of State will now coordinate with the governor’s office and the North Dakota  Department of Transportation to bring the agency to each reservation 30 days leading up to an election and issue free, non-driver IDs.

Additionally, the state would reimburse tribal governments up to a certain amount per election for administrative costs associated with having to issue IDs and addresses, according to Purdon. Times and treatment can change in North Dakota, but usually as a result of a movement and a lawsuit.

In 2018, Ruth Anna Buffalo, a Mandan/Hidatsa woman whose lands were drowned by federal policies in the Garrison Diversion Project, became the first Native woman to be elected in the history of North Dakota. She had unseated the incumbent and represents the new wave of leadership in North Dakota, and perhaps nationally. Ruth is in the House and more are coming.  That’s why we must vote.