Rustling up votes in Indian Country

  • Vote-Catcher +96 bus stops at Navajo Reservation

    Paul Natonabah/Navajo Times
  In late summer, Russell LaFountaine and four friends drove his 30-foot motorhome emblazoned with "Native Vote 96" over 10,000 miles of the West's highways. Pulling into reservations, casinos and even the Democratic and Republican conventions, they spread their message: If Native Americans want change, they had better vote.


The motorhome, named Vote-Catcher after the web-like dream-catchers made by Native Americans, is only part of what has become the biggest effort ever to get out the Native American vote. LaFountaine, a member of the Puyallup tribe in Washington, likens it to the black voter registration drives during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.


Why now? Del Calabaza, a Pueblo Indian from New Mexico, says the downsizing of federal programs hurt Indian tribes, and he ticks off cuts to health care, education, housing and programs for the elderly and youth.


Calabaza says the congressional attacks spurred 19 Pueblo leaders in northern New Mexico to start a political action committee, PATH, which stands for Pathway to Advanced Tribal Harmony. The almost nonexistent representation of Indians in Congress also prompted a Montana-based group, Native Action, to visit powwows, low-income urban neighborhoods and reservations to talk to Native Americans about the need to vote. Of the 33 reservations where LaFountaine led workshops, all but one has begun a grassroots campaign to educate voters.


These groups begin with the basics, says Calabaza. They teach people how to fill out a registration card, use voter machines and read a ballot. "This is a new ball game for a lot of our native voters," he says.


Native American voter turnout is traditionally low, although it has risen in recent years - especially in Montana and New Mexico - due in part to efforts like LaFountaine's.


LaFountaine says the low voter numbers can be chalked up to distrust. "The white world of politics has not been friendly," he says. "(Native) sovereignty hasn't been upheld."


This year, Indians are being courted by Democrats. The Democratic Party held its first reception for Native Americans at its Chicago convention and also hired an outreach worker for Native Americans. Indian votes count. In Montana, Native Americans are estimated at a crucial 10 percent of registered voters. And if Clinton is to win Arizona, a state where the drive to register Native Americans is especially strong, he will need the backing of Native Americans.


For LaFountaine, the biggest hurdle is empty pockets. When we talked to him, he'd parked his motorhome in Seattle while he waited for grant money to come for his next get-out-the-vote tour.


*Heather Abel