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
  • CHAPTER DIRECTOR - IDAHO SIERRA CLUB
    Idaho could lead the nation in the transition to clean energy, and the Idaho Sierra Club is committed to making that happen. We seek to...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....