Urgent Need to Get Out The Vote In Indian Country
The Midterm Elections are days away. It is critical that every Native American exercise their right to vote and actively educate all candidates for elected office. At stake is respect for the status of Indian tribes as governments—a fact acknowledged in the United States Constitution. The most basic principles of federal Indian law and policy are under direct attack. The decisions made by American voters on November 6, 2018 will prove crucial to the future of tribal sovereignty.
ICWA is in jeopardy. Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 in response to reports that thirty-five percent of Native children were being removed from Indian homes by state and private adoption agencies—despite the fact that fit and willing relatives were available. On October 4, 2018, a U.S. District Court in Texas ruled that ICWA’s jurisdictional definition of “Indian children” uses ancestry as a “proxy for race” and is unconstitutional.
In January of 2018, the HHS–Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) encouraged state governments to impose work and other eligibility requirements for individuals to receive Medicaid. Ignoring the federal government’s solemn treaty and trust obligation to provide health care to Native Americans, CMS later stated that would not provide exemptions for Indians from state work requirements, because of civil rights concerns based on the race of individuals. This not only ignores treaty rights, but again ignores the fact that Indian tribes are separate distinct governments recognized in the U.S. Constitution. If upheld, the decision could jeopardize more than $800 million annually in third party billing from Medicaid that has helped address significant funding shortfall in the Indian Health care system.
In 2017, the Administration issued Executive Orders to expedite development through Reservation lands over objections of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Tribes. The Tribes’ objections were based on the fact that the path of the development runs through Native burial sites and has and will continue to cause adverse human health and environmental impacts on Reservation lands. Later in 2017, the Administration ordered the reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument and other monuments that were established to protect and preserve Native sacred places on federal lands. Finally, in 2017 and 2018, the Interior Department issued a proposal that would make it more difficult for Indian tribes to restore Native homelands.
Too much is at stake to sit out this election. Indian Country must unite and stop these attacks on tribal sovereignty and our way of life. Our first step must be energizing the Native voice at the ballot box on November 6, 2018.
Importance of the Native American Vote
The first Americans were the last to be granted voting rights. Throughout the 1800s—without the right to vote and with no voice in Congress—federal decision makers imposed the devastating policies of Removal, Allotment, and Assimilation. These policies cost millions of lives, took hundreds of millions of acres of tribal homelands, and authorized the forced removal of Indian children into boarding schools—prohibiting them from speaking their language or practicing their religion.
Tribal governments fought these policies and many Native Americans gave their lives to protect tribal sovereignty and to preserve Native culture, religion, and ways of life. Through it all, Indian Country persevered.
Native Americans were afforded the right to vote in federal and state elections with passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. However, it took decades to exercise these rights. Indians first voted in elections in the State of Maine in 1955. New Mexico did not amend its prohibition on Indian voting until 1962. To this day, state governments continue to establish barriers to the constitutional rights of Native Americans to vote in federal and state elections. Barriers to voting include locating polling stations hundreds of miles from Native communities and strict voter ID laws that ignore tribal culture, language, and facts on the ground in Indian Country.
While some states work with tribal governments to expand polling locations, too many others expand barriers. The most notable example of Native American voter suppression in the 2018 Midterm Election is the effort of the North Dakota state legislature to implement a new law that requires voter IDs to include a street address. This law is directly targeted at suppressing the Native vote, because many rural tribal communities do not have street addresses—and instead rely on P.O. boxes.
Tribal leaders and Native activists in North Dakota and advocates nationwide are working to make voting in Indian Country a community-wide event. Tribal newspapers and radio stations are publishing detailed voter guides to educate our people on the voting process and the potential impacts of the election. Tribal schools and community centers are being opened to distribute voter information. We can and must do more. Too much is at stake in this election.
The power of the Native vote in federal elections is proven. In the past decade, the Native vote made the difference in several important elections. Sitting U.S. senators of both parties in Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and Washington acknowledge that Native votes put them in office. In addition, dozens of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are in office because of the Native vote. Indian country has the potential to swing federal elections at an even greater rate IF we get out the vote. With many elections coming down to only hundreds of votes—even a 1% block can swing an election.
The Native Vote is non-partisan. Indian affairs issues cross all party lines. At its core, tribal governments fight for local control, for parity and respect as governments, and for the United States to uphold its solemn treaty promises and trust obligations that have no expiration dates.
Our ancestors fought and many died to protect tribal sovereignty and our rights to self-governance. All of Indian Country must honor the sacrifices of those who came before us by energizing your community, educating candidates for elected office from all political parties, and supporting those candidates who have earned our vote.
Indian Country Today will stream a live coast-to-coast newscast on election day partnering with First Nations Experience and Native Voice One. The newscast will begin at 7:00 pm Mountain / 9 pm Eastern. Hashtag: #NativeElectionNight