Dur­ing one of the after­noon ses­sions at Day One of Net­roots Nation 2021, a pan­el of Native Amer­i­can orga­niz­ers and lead­ers gath­ered via Socio and Zoom to dis­cuss the issues fac­ing Indige­nous vot­ers, and how they are prepar­ing for the upcom­ing 2022 midterm elec­tions going forward.

The pan­el fea­tured Judith LeBlanc, mem­ber of the Cad­do Nation of Okla­homa and Direc­tor of Native Orga­niz­ers Alliance; Chrissie Cas­tro, Diné and Chi­cana, and Chair­per­son of the Los Ange­les City and Coun­ty Native Amer­i­can Indi­an Com­mis­sion; Jade Begay, Diné and Tesuque Pueblo of New Mex­i­co and Cre­ative Direc­tor of NDN Col­lec­tive; and Michael John­son, cit­i­zen of The Three Affil­i­at­ed Tribes of North Dako­ta, and Direc­tor of Advance­ment with NDN. 

The dis­cus­sion was mod­er­at­ed by Lycia Mad­docks, Cit­i­zen of the Quechan Indi­an Nation and com­mu­ni­ca­tion strate­gist with NDN Collective.

The pan­el start­ed off with pan­elists dis­cussing the chal­lenges fac­ing Native vot­ers and orga­niz­ers, and some of the lessons learned from the 2020 election.

One of the frus­tra­tions for Indige­nous orga­niz­ers is that Native Amer­i­cans have his­tor­i­cal­ly been dis­missed as a key elec­toral con­stituen­cy. LaBlanc said that an ongo­ing nar­ra­tive around Native Amer­i­can vot­ers is that they are “sta­tis­ti­cal­ly insignif­i­cant,” and there­fore not wor­thy of cam­paign attention.

“But,” she said. “They are polit­i­cal­ly significant.”

She not­ed that the Nava­jo Nation already has one of the high­est vot­ing rates, a num­ber which only increased dur­ing the 2020 election.

Begay con­curred with this sentiment. 

“There are demo­graph­ics who don’t believe our vote mat­ters,” she said–an issue that demands atten­tion from Democ­rats. One way to address this, she con­tin­ued, was to get Native-cen­tered nar­ra­tives in the mass media.

Mad­docks then turned to LeBlanc to elab­o­rate on her obser­va­tions on the con­di­tions in both rur­al and urban Native communities.

LeBlanc said that the key to mobi­liz­ing the vote was to not only bring aware­ness to the grow­ing polit­i­cal pow­er of Native vot­ers, but to instill that aware­ness as a call to action.

She cit­ed her suc­cess in orga­niz­ing across sev­en dif­fer­ent states against the grow­ing tide of extrem­ist right wing can­di­dates run­ning for state leg­isla­tive seats.

We said look,” she said. “Elec­tion results are snap­shots of our polit­i­cal pow­er at the moment. They’re snap­shots of their polit­i­cal pow­er as well.”

Anoth­er moti­vat­ing fac­tor will be the pres­ence of Deb Haa­land, an enrolled mem­ber of Lagu­na Pueblo of New Mex­i­co, Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or, and the first Native Amer­i­can to serve as a Cab­i­net secretary.

The pan­elists over­whelm­ing­ly agreed that the impor­tance of Sec­re­tary Haa­land’s pres­ence in the cab­i­net can­not be underestimated.

The pan­elists men­tioned that are “per­sis­tent bar­ri­ers” for com­mu­ni­ties, bar­ri­ers which are sys­temic and thus in need of leg­isla­tive action.

Exam­ples of solu­tions include the Native Amer­i­can Vot­ing Rights Act.

There is also the mat­ter of vis­i­bil­i­ty. One pan­elist men­tioned that 80% of Native vot­ers base their vot­ing deci­sions on the track record of a can­di­date’s sup­port of Indige­nous issues. If pro­gres­sives are to earn the Native vote, they must con­tin­ue to engage Native vot­ers and speak to issues that engage Native vot­ers, such as envi­ron­ment, edu­ca­tion, sov­er­eign­ty, and the right to self-determination.

LeBlanc not­ed that tribes have a unique rela­tion­ship with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment because they are sov­er­eign nations with treaty rights.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the Bureau of Indi­an Affairs shares the same bud­get appor­tion­ing funds towards oth­er envi­ron­men­tal issues, such as endan­gered ani­mals, lead­ing to an under­fund­ing towards issues such as education.

And though there has been an expec­ta­tion since the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion that tribes be con­sult­ed in pol­i­cy­mak­ing, she said that his­tor­i­cal­ly their requests and con­cerns have been ignored or mere­ly giv­en lip service.

“Orga­niz­ing is being at the table,” she said. “There is an exec­u­tive order requir­ing con­sul­ta­tion.” But until it’s man­dat­ed, noth­ing will fun­da­men­tal­ly change.

Begay also not­ed that, in addi­tion to issues such as food sov­er­eign­ty and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, there need­ed to be a greater invest­ment in cul­ti­vat­ing Indige­nous leaders.

Mad­docks then asked the pan­elists how they were prepar­ing Native can­di­dates for the 2022 midterm elections.

Cas­tro said her orga­ni­za­tion was “invest­ing in work­ing on rep­re­sen­ta­tion” through focus groups, cam­paign man­age­ment teams, and build­ing polit­i­cal infrastructure.

Talk­ing to vot­ers about issues they care about and acti­vat­ing in every elec­tion and polit­i­cal avenue — “school dis­tricts and coun­cil meet­ings” — helps “[build] a mus­cle of Native vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion for 2022.”

Cre­ative strate­gies employed to work with the restric­tions imposed by the glob­al COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, such as robust phone bank­ing and dig­i­tal orga­niz­ing, only strength­ened those connections.

Mad­docks end­ed the pan­el by agree­ing with this state­ment. For Native orga­niz­ers and com­mu­ni­ties, in her words: “Vot­ing is sov­er­eign muscle.”

About the author

Caya is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor based out of Spokane, Washington, writing about Lilac City politics, the Evergreen State's 5th Congressional District, and related politics. She previously hosted the inaugural episodes of NPI's PNWcurrents podcast. She works at the Unemployment Law Project and is a graduate of Central Washington University, with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and sciences. Caya also has a minor from CWU in law and justice.

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