Tribal Sovereignty

Voting Rights & Politics

Members of the Creek Nation listen to a campaign speech in Los Angeles, 1,400 miles from the home reservation.Members of the Creek Nation listen to a campaign
speech in Los Angeles, 1,400 miles from the home

Finally, Native Americans may not participate in U.S. elections because they are more concerned with the politics of their own tribal sovereign nation. Of the over 560 federally recognized tribes, only six have populations over 100,000. Most are like the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation with 12,500 members.

So, as the cliché goes, all tribal politics are local, and the issues facing the Eastern Band of the Cherokees are similar to issues in many other tribes.

As Spiral of Fire points out, one of the most contentious issues involves absentee voting. Brenda Norville was one of the tribal council members in the documentary who was concerned about "thin bloods" and absentee voters. In the 2003 tribal election, she won the vote of people living on the reservation, but there were enough absentee votes for her opponent to throw her off the council.

In that election, the number of mail-in ballots increased 300 percent from the election two years before. Absentee ballots accounted for 15 percent of the total votes cast — enough to make a significant difference.

Today, 64 percent of Native Americans — almost two-thirds — live in urban areas instead of reservations. Should that majority population of urban Indians control the policies of their home reservation? Should urban Indians control the lives of reservation Indians?

The Eastern Band of the Cherokee said no. In 2003, a majority of reservation and absentee voters approved a referendum banning mail-in ballots in tribal elections. The vote was 1,520 in favor and 1,149 against. Of those total votes, 664 came through the old system of absentee voting.

Under the new law, enrolled members living away from trust lands will have to travel to the reservation to vote.

However, there are some Cherokee members who were threatening to challenge the provision in court arguing it denies legitimate tribal members the right to vote.

Most of the other 500-plus tribes in the lower 48 states allow members to vote with absentee ballots. While that is similar to provisions for U.S. federal elections, it is different from towns and states where voters must be current residents.

In A Seat at the Drum, A. D. Ellis was campaigning in Los Angeles to become Principal Chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma. He won that election in part because he reached out to urban members of his tribe.

He has a vision of the Creek Nation with a solid economic base. He believes in 50 years the tribe will be English-speaking, spread out across the nation, and that the economy of the tribe will follow its members.

Yet, he is nervous about getting too urbanized and too intermarried. "I was looking at the books last week, and we've got seven people in our tribe that are 1/1000th. So I'm very scared of it because I wouldn't want someone 1/1000th being elected chief."

His sense of political participation is still wrapped up in a personal identification of what it means to be Creek, as opposed to simply being Indian.

Political participation in Indian Country is still evolving in tribal communities.

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