Native American Success Stories; an Optimist’s Lens on the Midterms

The midterms were only a couple weeks ago, and now the next milestone is approaching-- Thanksgiving. A quintessential American holiday, for many it symbolizes a quintessential American quality: oppressing Native Americans. Since before the Mayflower landed with its smallpox infested blankets and Indian killing pilgrims, colonizers in the Americas had been trying to erase Native American identity. Five hundred years later, they are fighting to reclaim their culture, voices, and values back. Native Americans are almost 2% of the population but are only .03% of elected officials. This Thanksgiving (and more generally, holiday) season, we ought to give thanks for the survival of these peoples, by recognizing the power of their reclamation. We should appreciate and celebrate the relentless fight for rights Natives have been struggling with in American government, despite it being set against them (by continuous denial of suffrage and other rights and no recognition of treaties).

Of the 10 native Americans that ran for Congress during the past midterm elections (three of them being women), two Native American women were elected, in fact making them first two in history (2018 in general has become a record year in terms of how many Native Americans ran for office). This coming January, they join two men, effectively doubling the number of Indian representatives. These two women are Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids in Kansas. Haaland wants to represent Natives on crucial issues in which their voice is crucial but often erased, like the environment and health care. Speaking to Vox news, she said “I don’t know if it’s actual legislation as much as it is just really advocating to make sure that Congress recognizes the fact that the United States has a trust responsibility to Indian tribes. So at every possible opportunity, I’ll work really hard to make sure tribal leaders have a seat at the table when there’s issues of importance.” She wants indigenous sovereignty, a respect for treaties, resources, and land that has yet to be shown. Davids similarly wants the rights of all people to life and respect upheld. In one of her campaign advertisements, says “It’s 2018 and women, Native Americans, gay people, the unemployed and underemployed have to fight like hell to survive. It’s clear Trump and the Republicans in Washington don’t give a damn about anyone like me or anyone who doesn’t think like them.” This is despite the consistent opposition received from the government. For example, in the San Juan County of Utah, even though Native Americans largely outnumber white people, borders were drawn to suppress their votes and favor white voices. It wasn’t until 2017 that this gerrymandering was ordered to stop and the Navajos had their majority represented.

Historically, policy makers have disenfranchised Natives. Indigenous peoples of the United States were not made citizens until 1924, and did not gain the right to vote in a number of states until after WWII (states argued reservation Indians didn’t pay taxes and were thus ineligible until a veteran sued in 1948). This American tendency has not been curtailed in the present. In 2012, Heidi Heitkamp became one of North Dakota’s two senators. The race was close, less than 3,000 votes separating victory from loss. In retaliation, North Dakota passed laws requiring voters to have residential addresses, unfairly targeting Native Americans reservation populations, which more often only have P.O boxes. Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the North Dakotan law. Nevertheless, Natives persist. The sponsor of the bill lost his re-election bid to Ruth Buffalo, a Native American. And in the state house in general, Native voters gained Democrats at least three more seats. Although she was trailing in seeking reelection, Native Americans showed up, and she won. They were so angry of the Republicans’ attempt to steal their voice away, once again, that they fought back harder than ever. In another example, local Republican precinct committeeman Michael Kalny who called Davids a “radical socialist kickboxing lesbian Indian” who “will be sent back packing to the reservation” on Facebook ended up resigning. In Utah, Republicans tried to prevent the campaign of Navajo Willie Grayeyes for an Utah county commission office by falsifying documents that claim his residence to be in Arizona. He was elected during the midterms.

The Standing Rock Indian Reservation, an especial political hotspot, (2016 birthed protests against the Dakota Pipeline, which transports oil through the reservation, thus both breaching sovereignty and polluting the land) had a 105% higher turnout from the last midterm election. Even when compared to presidential elections, they turned up in unprecedented numbers.

Tribes triumph the odds through sacrifice and investment, pouring in thousands of dollars, people, and time. They extended office hours and worked 24/7 to hand out addresses and IDs, providing them for free even though they usually cost at least $5. According to the NY Times, “The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians printed so many IDs that the machine overheated and started melting the cards.” Also speaking to the NY Times, Jodi Gillette (a Standing Rock member who worked for the interior department under Obama) said “The right to vote can be taken for granted until someone tries to take it away from you, and then it can be the reason you do vote.”

Hardship and disenfranchisement have inspired many Native Americans to fight harder against the force that oppress them, to reclaim what they are robbed of. The leaders that emerge in their communities as well as the mass efforts are inspiring. This Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful for our voices, our votes, and heroes like Sharice Davids that are ready to fight for human rights. Let’s let this inspiration turn to action for ourselves as well.