What the 2018 midterms could mean for Native voting

Candidates and organizers think now is the time for Indigenous lawmakers.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

Patricia Roybal Caballero was a freshman lawmaker in New Mexico’s House of Representatives when she walked into a popular Santa Fe restaurant in 2013 for a meeting with some of her colleagues. Roybal Caballero, a community and economic developer of Piro-Manso-Tiwa ancestry, was by then used to dealing with negative perceptions about her race, but what happened next astounded her.

“Before I had a chance to ask for a table, the hostess said, ‘I am sorry, but we’re not taking applications right now,’” Roybal Caballero told me recently. 

For that kind of encounter to happen to a lawmaker in the state capital, in a city with so many people of color, was a reminder of the need for her to be a voice for marginalized people. Although there are 6.6 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the country, Roybal Caballero is one of only a few dozen Indigenous state lawmakers. That’s a discrepancy worth considering as we head toward 2018 midterm elections.

“If you look at our Indigenous populations in the state of New Mexico, it is the voice of New Mexico,” she said. “We are what represents the best and worst of histories of the state.”

Patricia Roybal Caballero

For Roybal Caballero, racial misconceptions and ignored histories don’t stop at local restaurants. In a December speech at a charter school conference, the state’s education secretary, Christopher Ruszkowski, said America was built on “freedom, choice, competition, options, going West, Manifest Destiny.” Manifest Destiny is a thorny 19th-century concept — a justification of the expansion of American colonialism that destroyed countless Indigenous communities and lives — but here it was again, being glorified.

“It was one of those moments I refer to as an educational and teaching moment,” Roybal Caballero said, “which I’m finding these days to be almost every moment, that we are subjected to these kind of references.”

Roybal Caballero said her mere physical presence can change the tone of a conversation in the statehouse, which in turn can change misconceptions. That’s why the upcoming federal elections have caught her attention, as at least four women across the country are hoping to become the first Indigenous women elected to Congress: Sharice Davids, Deb Halaand, Eve Reyes-Aguirre and Amanda Douglas. Three more Indigenous women are running for governor in Idaho, Hawaii and Minnesota.

In 2016, Peggy Flanagan became the first Native American woman to address the Democratic National Convention. This year, she is running for lieutenant governor of Minnesota.

“Four in relation to our population in this country may not be seen as significant through the eyes of power and authority, but through our eyes, we know that through our history that just three or four of us can be resounding,” Roybal Caballero said. 

Native Americans were not allowed to vote until 1924. It was only 40 years ago that Congress recognized the legal right of Indigenous peoples to practice their religious beliefs. Needless to say, Native communities have never been properly represented in Congress. That legacy of disenfranchisement continues to this day, as Native Americans across the country face a variety of challenges accessing the voting booth and having their concerns met with action

It isn’t just Indigenous candidates that make this year feel different. In one part of the Navajo Nation, there is hope that redistricting can begin to reverse generations of voting disenfranchisement. In Alaska, efforts are being made to create voting ballots in several Indigenous languages

“This year seems organic,” Mark Trahant, editor-in-chief of Indian Country Today, told me. “Lots of folks who have decided they must run—now.” Trahant has been tracking Native political candidates for years now, and he said the unprecedented number of Indigenous state and federal candidates has caused him to create a new category in his data set for first-time candidates. 

Issues like the dramatic reduction of Bears Ears National Monument, a land sacred to Native peoples, many of whom successfully lobbied to have it designated, have also galvanized voter participation efforts. It probably didn’t hurt voting efforts to have President Donald Trump, who backed the reduction, hang a portrait in the Oval Office of President Andrew Jackson, a man whose embrace of genocide led to the Trail of Tears.  

The president’s history with Native Americans is not good. Combined with his continued attacks on Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Native ancestry, sometimes at the most inappropriate of moments, there’s little room for optimism over future relations between tribes and the Trump administration. 

The voices of our people have always lacked a proper platform. We have long been marginalized. We have never had a voice in Congress that reflects us as a people. As Roybal Caballero told me: “Even historically, we have had to be our own organizers. We’ve had to lean back on our own traditions. We’ve had to rely on those in order to strengthen our own presence because we have not had anyone.”

Here’s hoping our voices become too loud to ignore. 

Wado.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TROUT UNLIMITED NORTH IDAHO FIELD COORDINATOR
    The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.