What’s in the Native American Vote?

Hispanic voters and young people are not the only demographics ascendant during the 2016 election cycle.

By Ben Railton

Tagged ElectionsNative Americans

In an election season that has been ripe with animosity and racism at the national level, one of the few positive and inspiring stories to come out of the 2016 race has been the surprising prominence of Native American communities and voices. This has been due, in part, to the coincidental timing of the landmark Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a story that has been frustratingly slow to receive national news coverage, but has nonetheless engaged the attention of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, former Democratic Party candidate (and current Hillary Clinton supporter) Bernie Sanders, and even President Obama.

The prevalence of native issues during this election campaign goes well beyond one setting and story, however. Both Clinton and Sanders took unprecedented steps to reach out to Native Americans during the primaries, including hiring advisors, drafting policy and platform statements specific to native issues, and traveling to native communities for highly publicized meetings. More importantly still, there are a record eight Native American candidates running for Congressional seats this November, including two incumbents (Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, both Republicans from Oklahoma) and six challengers; nearly 80 more native candidates are running for statewide offices around the country.

These candidates, and the attention being paid to issues facing native voters, are impressive in their own right, and reflect an American community making its voice and presence felt in an election season where the stakes for all Americans couldn’t be higher. But these contemporary victories become even more meaningful when placed in the context of the complex and contested history of Native American citizenship and voting rights.

First, it’s important to note the longstanding and ongoing debates over native sovereignty that inform this history. To many scholars and activists, Native American tribes exist outside of (and equal to) the United States. Viewed through that lens, Native Americans should, one day, be able to seek dual citizenship from both their tribe as well as from the United States; their voting rights would, therefore, be tied to that legal and political status.

This is not, however, to diminish the historical significance of the moments that have defined the fight for Native American citizenship and voting rights within the United States itself. Indeed, those moments offer vital reminders of how tenuous and hard-won the very concept of native citizenship has been, and how important it is that it not be taken for granted. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in June 1866, was a watershed moment in the expansion of American citizenship. Not only did it extend protections to all former slaves and their descendants, but it also enshrined into law the concept of “birthright citizenship” for all those born in the United States. Only this amendment did not apply to all Americans; as a number of subsequent court cases reiterated, the law defined Native Americans as “wards” of the state instead, leaving them outside of this otherwise all-encompassing revision of the national community.

Late nineteenth century native activists and their allies, however, did not allow this discriminatory exception to go unchallenged. In 1879, Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who had undertaken an extensive protest and speaking tour in order to raise awareness of his tribe’s unlawful and violent treatment at the hands of the U.S. government and military, sued General George Crook. Standing Bear’s suit challenged both the Ponca tribe’s displacement from their Nebraska homeland to an Oklahoma reservation and his personal imprisonment by General Crook (for illegally leaving that reservation in order to stage his protests). After a lengthy and highly public trial, Judge Elmer Dundy ruled in Standing Bear’s favor, noting in his decision that “an Indian is a person” and that “[Indians] have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

By enshrining those fundamental American and human principles into law, accompanied by a series of other subsequent legal and political victories such as the new (if still circumscribed) opportunities for native citizenship granted by the 1887 Dawes Act, Standing Bear and his allies helped push the nation toward a slow, but full recognition of Native American citizenship. This recognition came, mostly, in the form of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which declared “all non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States…to be citizens of the United States,” so long as “the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.”

Yet as African Americans in the Jim Crow South, and many other groups of Americans throughout our history, have long known, full citizenship does not necessarily entail equal voting rights (despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee that it does). Indeed, through at least the late 1950s, many states maintained laws that prohibited Native Americans from voting. In New Mexico, for example, the state constitution explicitly barred Native Americans living on reservations (the vast majority of the state’s native population) from voting in either state or federal elections. That constitutional discrimination was challenged by native and civil rights activists as early as 1948, but only amended in 1962.

Even with such changes to state law, coupled with the nationwide protections afforded by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the battle to ensure and protect Native American voting rights has persisted throughout the twentieth century and into the present day—despite the fact that this fight has only very recently gained the attention of the broader public. The American Indian Movement (AIM)—too often known only for its controversial occupations and legal cases, such its ongoing fight to free Leonard Peltier from prison—has pursued Standing Bear’s legacy, pushing the struggle for voting rights into our present century. The most recent challenges to the Voting Rights Act and voting access have likewise drastically affected native communities, and are the subject of continued challenges from native activists and their allies, such as the efforts by a number of Arizona tribes to contest that state’s new, labyrinthine voter ID requirements.

These battles reflect how fully the history of Native American voting rights echoes and extends into 2016. And yet the unprecedented presence of native communities and candidates in this election make clear that this American community has not been static—it has found, and continues to find, ways to infuse its ideas and concerns into our country’s evolving political and cultural discourse.

New battleground states such as North Carolina, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada are among those with the highest percentage of Native American inhabitants. With these states more in play than they have been in decades during a presidential election, native voters will have a real chance—especially if ongoing challenges to voting restrictions are successful—to impact the 2016 election on the federal, as well as state and local levels. Many of those states have competitive Senate races, including for John McCain’s seat in Arizona and for Richard Burr’s in North Carolina. Some of the most contested House races include Texas’s 23rd district, in addition to open seats in Arizona and Nevada, all races that native voters could help sway in one direction or another.

This growing political influence is also reflected in the possibility of a record number of Native American legislators serving in both state houses and in the U.S. Congress. Newly elected officials will be joining Native American political advisors in D.C. who have worked with the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, as well as the social activists mobilizing the Standing Rock protests, in giving voice to native concerns in the media and public sphere. This election cycle should help make clear that Native American voters and communities now form a vital part of the demographic forces reshaping American politics and discourse in key areas, from debates over the justice system and energy policy to the movements fighting wealth inequalities and voter suppression. Hopefully, this is only the start.

Read more about ElectionsNative Americans

Ben Railton is Professor of English Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He is the author of four books, including the forthcoming History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism. He maintains the daily AmericanStudies blogand has contributed public scholarly pieces to the Huffington Post, We're History, The Conversation, The American Prospect, and many more.

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