With Tribal Interests at Stake, Native Americans Ramp Up Voter Recruitment

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By:  Michael Frost  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: Aug. 6, 2009

White House photo
Al Franken (left), who now serves on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, meets with Vice President Joe Biden in May. (Official White House photo by David Lienemann)

Al Franken was sworn into the U.S. Senate in early July after being declared the winner in Minnesota by a mere 312 votes.

“I tell Al those 312 people are Native American,” says Peggy Flanagan, 29, who served as liaison to the state’s tribal members during the campaign.

The state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party assigned Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, to this post as part of a special effort to reach out to Minnesota’s approximately 50,000 Native Americans. Franken visited several of the state’s 11 reservations and spoke one-on-one with numerous leaders.

The effort appeared to pay off with a strong turnout reported by a group that has historically stayed home on Election Day – helping the Democratic caucus in Congress gain a potential 60-vote majority.

The tribes were rewarded, too, when Franken took a seat on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“The Senator asked to join the Indian Affairs Committee because he strongly believes that Minnesota's 11 tribal communities should have an advocate in the United States Senate,” said spokeswoman Jess McIntosh in a statement. “Simply put, the Senator wants to give a voice to those who are not always heard.”

National Trends

In recent years, leaders throughout Indian Country have been ramping up efforts to get out the vote. Once considered an anathema to tribal sovereignty, political participation is increasingly viewed as essential for protecting it.

“The evidence seems to point very clearly that the American Indian participation rate in state and federal elections has increased dramatically in the last few election cycles,” said David Wilkins, professor of American Indian studies and politics at the University of Minnesota and author of  “American Indian Politics and the American Political System.”

Wilkins said he had to considerably revise a chapter of his book in 2007 to address Native Americans’ increased voting turnout since the mid-1990s, a trend he sees continuing into the future.

“I think you’re going to see Indians participating in ever-increasing numbers,” he said.

Wilkins has drawn largely on anecdotal evidence for his research, as there is little hard data on Native American voting. 

Census data indicates their voting rates remain at the lower end of the spectrum for minority groups, but these conclusions are limited since they are based on self-reporting and small sample sizes.

Native Americans comprise about 1 percent of the total U.S. population. Percentages are about the same in Minnesota, where 37,000 voting-age residents identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2007. When expanded to include those who identify themselves as such in combination with another race, the totals increase to about 55,300, or about 1.4 percent of the state’s voting-age population.

Despite their small numbers, when Native Americans vote as a bloc in close races, they can make the difference between victory and defeat, elections in this decade have shown. In 2002, both South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano gave the Native American vote credit for having made the difference in their close electoral victories, Wilkins said.

Political Victories

The media also reported that Native American voters played a key role in ushering Montana's Jon Tester into a Senate seat in 2006.

Tribes collaborated in 2000 to help oust Sen. Slade Gorton, a Washington Republican, who was known as the “Indian Fighter” for his policies toward the state’s Native American population, estimated at about 90,000 by the Census Bureau's 2005-2007 survey. 

Gorton lost that election to challenger Maria Cantwell by 2,229 votes.

“We won,” said Russ Lehman of Evergreen State College, whose First American Education Project, funded by Native American tribes, provided polling, message development and media for the effort. In a 2003 report on the project, Lehman wrote that the campaign helped bring about 9,000 new Native American voters into the process.

“The moral of the story was they can make a difference,” Lehman said.


Sally Fineday / Courtesy of Fineday
Sally Fineday

There are 562 federally recognized tribes in the country, each of which has its own government. As a result, Native American elders have tended to rely on their tribal leaders, and many “don’t necessarily see the point” of voting in federal elections, said Sally Fineday, executive director of Native Vote Alliance of Minnesota, a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote organization that is co-sponsored by eight of the state’s 11 official tribes.

Of course, given the historical relationship between Native Americans and the federal government, such skepticism is understandable. Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship and the accompanying right to vote until 1924, and some states prevented Native Americans from voting in local elections until well past that date.

Native Americans on reservations weren’t allowed to vote in Arizona until 1948 and in New Mexico until 1952, for example, while Utah denied voting privileges until 1956, said Wilkins.
Some Native Americans view voting as inconsequential.  Others see it as potentially dangerous— a relinquishment of tribal authority, possibly including  the power to decide who belongs in their tribe.

Wilkins, a member of the Lumbee Nation, holds this view.

“I would view it as a violation of my own tribal sovereignty,” he said, citing an Iroquois citizen, Douglas George, who called voting “an act of treason.”

Attitudes about voting began changing in the 1990s, when a boom in casinos on reservations gave many tribes a substantial financial stake in federal and state gaming legislation. As a result, many leaders began to see voting as a means of protecting tribal interests and maintaining economic sovereignty.

By voting, Native Americans are essentially saying, “We will participate in your political system … in order to protect our own,” Wilkins said.

Fineday took this a step further.

“Because of our sovereign status, we have the most to gain and the most to lose if we don’t participate,” she said.

At the same time, younger generations have increasingly assimilated into the American political and cultural mosaic, Wilkins said, which is also increasing their incentive to vote.  “My kids even tried to talk me into it,” he said – for Obama.

Generational Change

Donovan Strong, chair of the state’s American Indian Caucus, sees clear distinctions between the generations. He said that older voters tend to rely more on face-to-face contact, what he referred to as the “moccasin telegraph.”

Younger voters, on the other hand, are often easier to reach through the technology they have grown up with, including Web sites, e-mail and text-messaging.

“If they don’t talk to each other, they read about each other on Facebook,” he said.

Peggy Flanagan
Peggy Flanagan

Flanagan is a member of this younger, more connected – and politicized – generation. She served as both the first Native American on the Minneapolis School Board and the youngest member to serve before retiring this year “at the ripe old age of 29,” she said.

In 2008, she mounted a campaign for a seat in Minnesota’s House of Representatives, but withdrew from the race when her mother began to face serious health issues. She said she would love to run for office again in the future if circumstances permit.

She now works as the director of the Native American Leadership Program at Wellstone Action, an organization created to continue the progressive legacy of former Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. The program is designed to strengthen civic engagement and train future leaders within the Native American community.

Flanagan says that reaching out to young voters may be an effective way to reach their parents as well. She said she got her father, who lives on the White Earth reservation, to vote in 2004 for the first time in more than 20 years, mostly by saying to him, “Dad, I’m on the ballot.”
In 2008, with a little more encouragement, he was also helping drive other reservation members to the polls.

Flanagan's ultimate goal is that Native Americans will see voting as part of who they are—-part of “our identity as Indian people,” she said. 


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