Voting Is Sacred.
Native Americans were denied the right to vote for decades. Many still are.
November is Native American Heritage Month here in the United States and as a woman with Native heritage, it’s a time to pause and reflect. In an election year, it’s especially meaningful because thousands of Native Americans nationwide will hit the polls to exercise their hard-won right to express their voice — hard-won because Native Americans weren’t guaranteed the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact, Native Americans weren’t even considered citizens of the U.S. until 1924.
I didn’t learn about this history until I went to college. Native American history after colonization isn’t really taught in schools — you’ll talk about the Trail of Tears as a side-note, and you might cover the American Indian wars of the late 1800s, but you’re largely left with the impression that American Indians don’t really exist after the turn of the 20th century. Growing up, I knew otherwise because my mom is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, but I didn’t truly learn Native American history in the U.S. until I took an elective course in college. It was a revelation.
For nearly the entire stretch of U.S. history, the goal of the federal government was to eradicate the American Indian — either literally or culturally through assimilation. When the country ratified the Constitution in 1788, Native Americans were not and could not be citizens. It may sound counter-intuitive — they were in this country first, right? But it’s largely because each Tribe is a sovereign entity, a fact upheld in two early Supreme Court rulings: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia, which defined the relationship between the federal government and the Tribes and upheld that states have no right to assert their laws in American Indian lands protected by treaties.
These two rulings still govern U.S. relations in Indian Country today. While the takeaway is that Tribes are sovereign nations, it also gave the U.S. government “an out” for a large portion of U.S. history: because Tribes are sovereign nations, Native people shouldn’t be citizens of the U.S. even though the actions of the U.S. dramatically impacted Native lives. And it was up to the U.S. government to uphold treaty rights — which would have been difficult for a fledgling country to do in frontier America even if it had wanted to do so. As more and more white settlers encroached on American Indian lands, American Indians were forced to fight for their lands and the federal government could conveniently swoop in to settle the “uprising” and dictate treaties in which the tribal nations ceded more land.
Throughout the 1800s, U.S. policy became more and more brutal through a mix of extermination and forcing cession of lands through raids, war and disease. When formerly enslaved people and Black Americans were granted citizenship with the 14th Amendment in 1868, the law was written and interpreted so it would not apply to Native people.
There was a turning point in 1870 when the U.S. Army slaughtered a peaceful camp full of Blackfeet women, children and old men: the Marias Massacre. Hundreds were killed. Reports of the attack drifted east and sparked a public outcry, forcing the federal government to eliminate its extermination policy. The U.S. shifted instead to reservations and assimilation — cultural extermination — which brings me back to the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
Prior to the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Native peoples were treated like immigrants on their own land — they weren’t citizens, nor did they have a voice in many decisions that affected their lives and wellbeing. In 1924, Native Americans became U.S. citizens, but not out of benevolence. The U.S. passed the law as a way to break up tribal nations and forcibly assimilate them — to, as Carlisle Indian School founder, Richard Henry Pratt said in 1892, “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Still, citizenship didn’t come with the right to vote. Voting rights were determined by the states, and many states actively denied Native Americans that right. Native Americans had to fight for that right, state by state, with Utah being the last state to grant Native Americans the right in 1962. Yet, just like in the Jim Crow South, poll taxes, intimidation and literacy tests prevented many Native peoples from exercising that right. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Native Americans fully secured their right to vote in every state.
As Native people hit the polls this election season, it is not lost on many that this hard-won right is tenuous. The Voting Rights Act is no longer intact. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision that required states with a history of racial bias in voting to get permission before passing new voting laws. Most interpret these states as those in the Southeast, for good reason. But it also applies to Native Americans in states throughout the country, from Washington State to Oklahoma. Turnout for Native peoples remains the lowest in the country, and it’s not because they don’t want to — it’s because many of them can’t vote. Just in 2018, North Dakota became the latest state to pass a voter ID law that severely impacts Native peoples, preventing many of them from voting. And while the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019 has been sponsored in the House, it only has a 3% chance of being enacted.
It has been only 55 years since the Voting Rights Act was passed into law. And yet this year, Native American voices continue to be suppressed as their communities are being ravaged by disease. How far from the 1800s have we truly come? The volatility that many are feeling this election year is what American Indians and other people of color have felt every election cycle — an assault on our most fundamental democratic right. More Americans than ever before are voting this year, possibly because more people are seeing just how tenuous that right truly is, wondering exactly what American Indians have always asked — will their voices be heard?
Throughout the month of November, I will be writing about Native American heritage and history. Stay tuned for more!