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Election 2008 The World is Watching

DISPATCH

Paying Attention to the Native American Vote

Votes of Native Americans could impact several battleground states

BY Tristan AhtoneNovember 4, 2008
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Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Before becoming a reporter, Ahtone graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with a bachelors degree in Creative Writing. In 2008, he received a masters degree in broadcast journalism from the Columbia School of Journalism. Since graduating, Ahtone has worked with
The Online Newshour and National Native News. This story is part of our "Abroad At Home" election coverage.

Political analysts say the presidential race this year could easily be swung by Native voters in battleground states with high Native populations, such as New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Colorado, but only if effective outreach has been made to Native communities.

During the primaries, for example, Senator Obama visited the Crow reservation in Colorado to give a campaign speech. When the votes were in, Crow precincts reported higher turnout then the rest of the state. In the end, Obama won the state with 91 percent of the vote.

"If you speak to those people, they will remember and they will come out to vote," says Russ Lehman, professor at Evergreen State College and the author of the 2004 and 2006 Native Vote Report commissioned by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

"The opposite is true as well. If you don't, you give those voters very little reason to come out and very little reason to be a part of the process," Lehman says.

There are 562 federally recognized tribes spread across America but Native Americans make up only 1 percent of the population. As a voting block, Native Americans were the last group in the U.S. to get the right to vote -- in some places as late as the 1960s -- and American Indians are the only ethnicity that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't track when it comes to election data.

This leaves organizers and campaigns at a disadvantage when trying to find and reach Native Americans and make sense of them as a new voting block.

There are 562 federally recognized tribes spread across America but Native Americans make up only 1 percent of the population.

"You're dealing with three sets of data: you have census data, election data and tribal enrollment data, and of course they're all so different that even when you layer them it's hard to extrapolate real numbers," says Loren Birdrattler, National Native Vote coordinator for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). "We have tracked, in a few states, precincts that are on reservations to get an idea, but that makes the assumption that a reservation is 100 percent native, which obviously it isn't. So, it's very difficult to get real numbers or real data."

Historically, Native Americans have some of the lowest voter turnout rates of any ethnic group in the country, and available data shows Native voters participate in tribal elections at almost twice the rate of national elections. This is primarily because many tribal voters believe policies and laws are written by their own tribal government

"They're right, but only half right," says Lehman. "A tremendous amount of what affects their lives on a day-to-day basis happens in the U.S. Congress. In fact, they have a right and responsibility to decide who makes those decisions in Congress, just like every non-Indian in this country."

Only during the last eight years have Native voters begun to show their power at the polls.

Only during the last eight years have Native voters begun to show their power at the polls. In 2002, Tim Johnson, the Democratic Senator from South Dakota was elected with little more 500 votes that came from the Pine Ridge reservation in the middle of the night. In 2004, Native voters helped elect Democratic Governor Brad Henry in Oklahoma, and in 2006, U.S. Senator John Tester of Montana credited Native voters with his win against Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.

The most pivotal race, and perhaps the greatest impetus for increased Native voter participation around the country, was the 2000 unseating of Slade Gorton by tribal voters in Washington State. The Republican Senator was viewed by many as unfriendly toward Native American concerns, and behind a number of proposals to weaken tribal sovereignty in his constituency.

"In 1999 leading up to the election, there were meetings in Indian country around the United States. National tribal leaders would say to tribal leaders from Washington State 'You gotta do something about that Slade Gorton,'" said Lehman. "I think over a period of time in 1999 and 2000, tribal leaders here realized, 'You know, maybe we can have an impact; maybe we can play in this game.'"

Lehman was directly involved with the 2000 election through his non-profit First American Education Project (FAEP), comprised entirely of tribes from around the country. Through research and television advertising, FAEP influenced and galvanized voters to pull support from Gorton.

Native American men

As an overall constituency, research shows that Native Americans are generally on the conservative side, more traditional and more in favor of a paternal system of government.

When the votes were counted, the Democratic candidate, Maria Cantwell, had defeated Gorton by 2,229 votes.

"If tribes had not played the role that they did," says Lehman, "Slade Gorton would have won, there's no question."

Native Americans also face a number of social and economic challenges. As a demographic, unemployment rates among Native Indians is nearly double the national average. Twenty-one percent of Native families are dealing with poverty, and the average household income is around $33,000 a year -- almost $13,000 less then the non-native population.

As an overall constituency, research shows that Native Americans are generally on the conservative side, more traditional and more in favor of a paternal system of government. It's estimated that nearly half the Native population lives in urban areas while the other half lives on reservations in rural areas. Despite rural, conservative values in reservation communities, most Natives vote 90 to 95 percent Democrat.

Republican Senator John McCain has been an exception. As former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, McCain has cultivated a long and deep relationship with Indian country -- building relationships with tribal leaders in his home state of Arizona and across the nation. However, it has been an uphill battle for the Republican as Senator Obama has spent a lot of time and money reaching out to Native Americans during his campaign.

"If McCain were to even pull 20 percent of the Native vote, that would be twice as much as Republicans traditionally get." Loren Birdrattler, National Congress of American Indians.

"If McCain were to even pull 20 percent of the Native vote, that would be twice as much as Republicans traditionally get," says Birdrattler. "I don't think he's trying to get a majority of Natives to vote for him. I think he's just trying to make inroads, especially in states like New Mexico."

In May, McCain met with the All Indian Pueblo Council (AIPC) -- the governing body for the 19 pueblos of New Mexico. In the meeting, McCain cited his experience and pledged his support for education efforts and sovereignty while promising to implement a tribal government position in the White House.

However, even back then when the election was more unsettled, AIPC chairman Joe Garcia sounded hesitant. "Experience is good but we need to find alternative solutions to our needs," Garcia said. "That means not only incorporating changes, but creating new solutions, because that's what true change is all about. I thank Senator McCain for taking the time for this important meeting."

In September, Obama picked up the endorsement from AIPC in a private meeting held in Albuquerque with the Mescalero Apache tribe, the Jicarilla Apache tribe and Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley. The endorsements of all 22 New Mexico tribes effectively seal the Native vote for Obama in the state of New Mexico.

Native American voters

Because increased political participation in Native communities is relatively new, political campaigns have had a hard time making sense of the new voting block during this presidential race.

According to President Shirley, there has been a relationship with McCain in the past, but he hasn't seen it as very meaningful and hopes that his endorsement of Obama will help fill the communication void.

"He promises to give a listening ear, he promises to work on our issues," says Shirley. "I think it all begins with sitting down together as comrades, as leaders, and talking about the different challenges that face both of us, and what we can do working together to take on these challenges together."

Nationally, organizers and activists believe that working to mobilize the Native vote will cause politicians to pay more attention to native issues. Since 2006, Native Vote Washington has been working to create a database of Native voters in the state in order to demonstrate native power at the polls with solid facts.

"They're not going to want to [sit down together] based on anecdotal evidence, so we hope to change that," says Chris Stearns, the press director for Native Vote Washington, a voter advocacy group based on the Tulalip reservation in Washington State. "We know the Indian vote matters in certain races, we just want the Indian vote to matter all the time."

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