Indigenous communities across the US tend to have the lowest voter participation rates. This essay explores why, and celebrates the victories won by indigenous communities in having their voices represented in elected government. Author Chris Roberts is a member of the Choctaw Nation who has been elected to office multiple times.
With Washington state’s all-mail elections, my wife and I vote with our son at the dinner table, discussing the merits of the candidates and issues on our ballot. When my son was in first grade, he was elected to represent his class in the student government.
Now, as a fourth-grader, he’s been singing along to a YouTube video to learn the state capitals. This understanding of the importance of political engagement is vastly different than my great-grandmother’s relationship with politics and political affairs.
My Granny, Lesa Roberts, was born in 1889 or 1890 in Cushtusa, a small Choctaw community in rural Mississippi. When she was born, women did not have the right to vote, and only a handful of tribal members across the United States could vote. After being forcibly removed from Mississippi with about 1,000 other Mississippi Choctaw in 1903, she was granted territorial and U.S. citizenship under the provisions of the Curtis Act of 1898.
While best known for setting a timeline to abolish tribal governments in Indian Territory, the Curtis Act, named for Representative Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation, allowed Choctaw members to vote for city officials, and when Oklahoma became a State, state and federal officials. After Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907, Robert Owen (Cherokee) won a non-binding election and subsequently selected as one of Oklahoma’s original U.S. Senators. In that same election, Charles Carter (Chickasaw) was elected as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
For most tribal members outside of Oklahoma, tribal members were not considered U.S. citizens until 1924 when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act. This act, a response to the contributions that tribal members made during World War I, provided “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States.” As U.S. citizens, all tribal members had the right to vote in federal and state elections.
Despite the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, the right to vote wasn’t firmly established in every state until twin rulings from the Arizona and New Mexico supreme courts in 1948. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that Sergeant Michael Trujillo, a member of the Isleta Pueblo, had the right to vote, despite provisions in the New Mexico constitution barring American Indians living on reservations from participating in state and local elections. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of veterans and Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation members Frank Harrison and Harry Austin, who sought to register to vote, overturning a 1928 decision.
My great-grandmother followed her children out to Richmond, California, during World War II before settling into the rural California city of Chowchilla. There, Lesa worked as a farm laborer with her children. Many of her grandchildren went to the high school down the street from their duplex, whose mascot was the “Redskins.” The mascot was finally changed in 2017 after a California law went into effect, banning the use of “racially derogatory or discriminatory school or athletic team names, mascots, or nicknames.”
For my great-grandmother, the political and social changes that happened around her were probably seen as outside noise. Over the course of her life, she rarely interacted with people outside of her family and infrequently talked about contemporary events to her family, even when people came over to visit. She never had a newspaper subscription, got her first TV in the early 1960s, and rarely (if ever) talked on the phone. The only outwardly political thing my father remembers growing up is that she used to hang a portrait of Robert Kennedy, given to her after Kennedy’s assassination, in the house she shared with one of her sons.
I doubt my great grandmother, or her children, ever voted. The indigenous peoples of the United States have the lowest voter turnout rates of all racial and ethnic groups. For many tribal members, barriers to suffrage include not having a physical address, tribal I.D.’s not considered acceptable proof for voting, and limited access to the ballot box.
Lesa’s relationship with U.S. politics was not unique among tribal members. Each tribal nation has a different perspective of the utility of political participation in federal, state, and local affairs. Some tribes view participation as a “virtual act of treason,” while others consider participation as an important way to preserve tribal interests, especially sovereignty (Wilkins and Stark 2011).
Three factors seem to affect political participation among Native Americans – a history of violent conflict and deep distrust of federal, state, and local actors (Peterson 1997), a widely dispersed population (Herrick and Mendez 2019), and few federal, state, or local officials representing tribal interests (Schroedel and Aslanian 2017).
Over the last 30 years or so, tribal nations became more active in pushing political participation and engagement with federal, state, and local governments. In 2004 the National Congress of American Indians(NCAI), an organization that seeks to protect and enhance treaty and sovereign rights, established the non-partisan Native Vote organization to encourage political participation and candidate education. During this period, many tribal nations began taking a more active role in supporting or opposing political candidates based on their perspective on tribal interests (Boehmke and Winters 2020).
Federal laws and regulations changed during this period to require more consultation and increased engagement between tribes, states, and local governments. The metropolitan planning organization for Washington’s Puget Sound area has always included tribal nations as members. Currently, the Suquamish Tribe and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians participate as voting members on the policy and transportation boards of the Puget Sound Regional Council, and four tribal nations serve as voting members in the general assembly.
In order to foster better relations between sovereign governments, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson adopted the principle of free, prior, and informed consent with the state’s 29 federally-recognized tribes in 2019. After the announcement of the policy, NCAI President and Quinault President Fawn Sharp stated the policy “is to ensure no other sovereign is able to take unilateral action affecting our land, territories or people without our consent. It’s a pretty basic principle, but it’s been so difficult to achieve, just a basic understanding of inherent civil rights, basic human rights, that all tribes should possess.”
The 2020 decision by the Supreme Court in McGirt v. Oklahoma affirmed that Congress never dissolved the treaty territory of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. In response to the decision, the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations issued a press release expressing their commitment “to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights.” How the decision will affect municipalities in Oklahoma is yet to be determined, but there are numerous cities in Washington on tribal reservations that have established government to government relationships with the tribal nation.
In cities across the nation, the increased visibility of tribal members in electoral politics and through government to government relationships has led to many productive city-tribal partnerships.
In 2019 in the City of Eureka, California returned over 200 areas of sacred land to the Wiyot Tribe. In Washington, the Nisqually Tribe and the City of Lacey signed an accord in 2014, acknowledging the “historical ties between the two communities in areas of environmental and resource stewardship” and includes a commitment of the two governments to meet annually to identify mutual goals. At the time, Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder stated, “our city is not so much defined by boundaries on a map, but by the relationships, we build with the partners in our community.”
Increasingly, tribal members are running to serve as municipal officials. There is no one reason why tribal members run for office, but most members say that a reason they ran was to ensure that the Native voice would be represented on their city council (Schroedel and Asalnian 2017). From Oklahoma City to Everson, Washington and from Madison, Wisconsin to Soap Lake, California, more and more enrolled tribal members are running for and winning municipal office.
Upon her 2015 election, Teresa Taylor (Lummi) wrote, “I have been around government and politics for a long time, and I never thought the day would come that I’d run for public office. The more involved I got, it became clear to me that it was my time to step up and run.” Reflecting upon her service as the first Native woman to serve on the Ferndale, Washington council, she said, “it’s important to vote for people that support our indigenous values.”
David Holt (Osage) told the Osage News after his election as Oklahoma City’s 36th mayor in 2018, my Osage heritage is “something I carry with pride into the office and it may be ways that influence me moving forward.”
He pointed to developing a better relationship between the city and the Chickasaw Nation and establishing Indigenous Peoples Day as some of his priorities as mayor.
Within my home state of Washington, there are five tribal members currently serving on city councils: Ashley Brown (Nooksack) on the Everson City Council, Debora Juarez (Blackfeet) on the Seattle City Council, LaTrisha Suggs (Jamestown S’Klallam) on the Port Angeles City Council, Chris Stearns (Navajo) on the Auburn City Council, and myself. There is little information known about how many municipal officials are Tribal Citizens. Yet know there are more than those listed in this article. This is why we are forming an NLC networking group for indigenous municipal officials in order to build community, educate, and advocate for equity.
As Monday, October 12 is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I say “yakoke” and raise my hands in appreciation of the ancestors and elders who paved the way for me to vote and to serve the Shoreline community on city council and as mayor. My hope is that the work we do here today will inspire the next generation of tribal members to run for municipal office, roll up their sleeves, and build stronger, more inclusive, and welcoming communities.
I wish my son could have met my Granny, who lived until the age of 105. I wish he could share with her the adventures of our kittens, fishing at the lake, and how many states he has visited. But I am confident that one day, his children and grandchildren will sit on his lap and help him fill out his ballot – passing down traditions across generations.
About the Author:
Chris Roberts was first elected to the Shoreline City Council in 2009 and served as mayor from 2016-17. He serves as a member of the Puget Sound Regional Council Executive Board, the Association of Washington Cities Federal Priorities Committee, and the Sound Cities Association Public Issues Committee. He is also a member of the National League of Cities Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee and the Race, Equity and Leadership Council. Chris is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.