A century ago, just after White women won the right to vote, Yankton Sioux suffragist Zitkala-Sa wrote a letter to the National Woman’s Party, reminding them that women of color had been excluded from the franchise. Four years later, in 1924, Native Americans would be granted U.S. citizenship, but not all would gain the right to vote so quickly. It wasn’t until 1962 that Utah became the last state to grant Native Americans that right.
And the fight still isn’t over, activists say.
From vastly distanced polling locations to logistical issues in mailing and receiving ballots, reservations face significant barriers to voting. Yet in the less than 60 years that they’ve been allowed to vote across the United States, Native Americans have developed considerable political power. This year, they could be a decisive bloc in seven swing states, accounting for 77 total electoral votes.
So ahead of an election with huge implications for the environment, health care and treaty rights, Native Americans have been starting conversations about voting across Indian Country. These three women are helping lead the dialogue.
“A lot of what happens in elections, such as the one that’s upcoming, impact Indian Country at every single level,” Begay said, “whether it’s health care, which is a big issue at this time, whether it’s land management or land sovereignty, or whether it’s having Internet, having utilities, having safe roads to drive on.”
So in late September, NDN Collective launched the show “Sko Vote Den,” named for the popular Native saying “Sko Den,” slang for “Let’s go then.”
On the show, Begay interviews Native organizers, journalists and policymakers like Rebecca Nagle, Christine Nobiss and Julian Brave NoiseCat about issues like environmental justice, the Alaskan vote, voter suppression and the political power of the Native vote. And on Oct. 19, her team at NDN put together the first Sko Vote Den Intertribal, a virtual play on the powwow, featuring Native artists, performers and activists all eager to get out the vote.
Voting “is not a black-and-white issue in our communities,” Begay wrote a few days after the release of the debut of “Sko Vote Den.” “It is a sensitive subject because of the legacies of colonial violence that the Federal government has forced upon our people.”
Begay and her colleagues ultimately hope for a fully decolonized system, one that’s not governed by Western, colonial values, but rather includes Indigenous knowledge and ways of living. Voting now, they recognize, allows them to choose who meets them at the negotiating table in the future.
“We were one of the last demographics to be given the right to vote,” Begay said. “But in the short amount of time that we have been involved, we’ve really built a lot of traction.”
In fact, in all of the conversations she’s had putting together the show, Begay said, there’s been one resounding sentiment: “If our vote didn’t matter, then why would there be such extreme measures to suppress our vote?”
One of Begay’s early guests on “Sko Vote Den” was Judith LeBlanc (Caddo), director of the Native Organizers Alliance. This year, LeBlanc’s team has partnered with IllumiNative to launch the Natives Vote campaign, which has coordinated 70 organizers and canvassers across nine states to get out the Native vote.
Because of the covid-19 pandemic, those organizers have had to get creative: registering people to vote as they waited in line for coronavirus tests on South Dakota’s Yankton reservation, or as they purchased supplies at supermarkets for 72-hour lockdowns on the Navajo Nation.
At the center of Natives Vote, LeBlanc said, is a dedication to Indigenous values. “In order to have transformational change, you have to shift power,” she said. “In order to shift the power back to our communities, and achieve tribal sovereignty, we have to stand in the power of our spirituality and our values.”
Across Indian Country, LeBlanc says many tribes share concepts of time and relationality, bringing their ancestors and descendants into contemporary decisions, while also considering their relationships to the land and to their elected officials.
“We have different tools in our toolbox,” LeBlanc said. “Sometimes we use prayer and prayer circles. Sometimes we march and we protest. Sometimes we lobby. And in 2020, we’re going to use that vote.”
LeBlanc already knows that Native voters are engaged because her team, alongside IllumiNative and the Center for Native American Youth, just completed the Indigenous Futures Survey, which claims to be “the largest research project ever conducted in Indian Country.” The survey found that 75 percent of Natives who live on reservations and upward of 80 percent who live in cities vote. The results also showed, LeBlanc said, that “the people who are most closely connected to their cultural traditions and identity, they’re the most politically engaged and politically active.”
To that end, Natives Vote has commissioned art from dozens of Indigenous artists to celebrate — and make visible — Native culture and political power. On the ground, LeBlanc’s team is finding that voters are willing to use every means necessary to end the pattern of the federal government denying Indigenous treaty rights and “the cycle of being ignored and erased.”
“No matter who gets elected, we can say tens of thousands of Navajos voted,” LeBlanc said. “They voted, they’re engaged. And depending on who wins, we will hold that person, on every level, Senate or presidential, we will hold them accountable based on that political power that’s there at the grass roots.”
In 2016, Chrissie Castro (Diné and Chicana) founded the California Native Vote Project after witnessing the success of groups such as the Native American Voters Alliance in New Mexico and Western Native Voice in Montana.
“Prior to the California Native Vote Project being in existence, the state voter files didn’t have a tag for ‘Native American,’ so nobody was specifically outreaching to Native voters,” Castro said. “We have actually had to self-create our own list to upload and match to the state voter file.”
The initiative has since generated a list of nearly 20,000 likely Native American voters.
In its first few years, the California Native Vote Project was largely a seasonal operation, but in 2018 it established a core team of year-round organizers to begin voter education, research and policy work. Geography, though, has complicated the task.
“Native and tribal communities in California, with the exception of a few places, are really, really geographically dispersed,” Castro said. “So us finding our people is actually really, really hard, and it makes community organizing very difficult.”
For this election, with the threat of covid-19 especially high in Native communities, Castro’s team has been carefully moving its work online, shifting to phone and text banks, digital organizing and other virtual events. In July, the group wrote a letter to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in July, outlining barriers to and providing recommendations for increasing Native voter turnout. And, for the first time, the California Native Vote Project is taking a stance on ballot measures, publishing an official guide to its election positions.
In the state with the largest number of Native Americans in the country, Castro is hoping Native voters can shift the balance on issues local and national — from Proposition 15 to the Supreme Court.
There’s reason to think they might, too. On the last Tuesday of September, IllumiNative and the Native Organizers Alliance teamed up to mark Voter Registration Day with a virtual town hall. For a little more than an hour, Begay, LeBlanc, Castro and other leaders came on to discuss Native voting issues, organizing and power.
Sixty-five thousand people tuned in.