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Slow progress for Native American representation in the US

Most are aware to some degree of the historical struggle that got women the right to vote in America.  Susan B. Anthony is immortalized on a silver dollar as an advocate for equal treatment of both women and African Americans.  Illustrating the length and determination that the fight for women’s suffrage required, women were allowed to vote by constitutional amendment in 1920, 14 years after Anthony’s death.

Before women obtained the right to vote, African American men (and other minorities) had a similar battle.  Before the 15th amendment was passed in 1870, only white men were legally allowed to vote in the US.  Even after the constitutional change was passed, states found ways to make it hard or impossible for African Americans to vote.  The Civil Rights Movement is perhaps the best known chapter in the long, painful history of blacks in America fighting for equal footing.  Even today, voter ID laws and similar regulations are criticized for unfairly targeting minorities. Wired reported earlier this year that ID laws do indeed discriminate against minorities, especially with President Trump’s call for a doubling down on them.  

Despite ongoing repression, African Americans and women got the vote long before Native Americans. The 15th amendment specifically denied Native Americans the right to vote.  Native American Rights Fund quotes Senator Jacob Howard at the time:

“I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me…”

It wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans born in the US were granted citizenship in the US, but this still didn’t enforce voting.  This same lack of enforcement is a big part of the greater Civil Rights Movement, typified by African American activists and their allies.  

In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act allowed Asians to become naturalized citizens, which would allow them to vote.  But minority groups were still routinely discriminated against when it came to voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to end discriminatory voting practices but as I noted, there are still ways states can discriminate without being fully transparent about motive.  Politifact reports that in Arizona and New Mexico, both states with large Native American populations, Native Americans weren’t allowed to vote until 1948 when courts ruled against the states.  In Utah, Native Americans were kept from voting until 1957, when they were the last Native American groups to be recognized as US citizens.

Given the history of law and racism in Utah, as well as the prevalence of Mormonism, it may not be very surprising that the race of government representatives didn’t reflect the race of their constituents.  This midterm election was a historical one for change in Utah. Now, St. George News reports, Utah is part of a growing trend of greater Native American representation in the US government.  San Juan County, Utah, a majority Native county, is now represented by Native American county commissioners.  

This may be good news for lovers of desert and public lands, if the fight for Bear’s Ears National Monument is any indication.  Native American groups in Utah have been engaged in a fight with the federal government to hold onto the original designation of Bear’s Ears National Monument as it was made by President Obama, in particular.  San Juan County, My Utah Parks proudly declares, is home to Canyonlands National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Rainbow Bridge National Monument as well as Navajo Tribal Park.  Bear’s Ears itself is also part of San Juan County.

High Country News reported in 2016, that roughly one third of San Juan County is also part of Navajo Nation.  The news organization reported on the frustration of local Native Americans that wanted a county ambulance housed closer to their homes.  Despite an ambulance being at best an hour drive from Native American communities, all but the single Navajo county commissioner, were apathetic.  Court decisions were required to make the county build a public school on Navajo land despite revenues from Native lands contributing to county profits and a legal requirement to do so.  

Despite the county being less than 50% Anglo, the majority of elected offices were held by whites until recently.  As late as 2016, High Country News reported, a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby, decided that San Juan County had violated the Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution.  The county had been drawing voting district boundaries by using race, a practice called ‘racial gerrymandering’.

It wasn’t until 1987 that San Juan County even elected a Navajo county commissioner, due to a number of racist voting tactics used by the county.  The districting in the county still unfairly concentrated the Native American vote in one district though and until redistricting occurred, San Juan County was destined to have only one Native American commissioner.  The 2016 court decision was the last in a long string of legal battles for Native Americans for equal voting rights and forced the county to redistrict. This year has been different; the election of two Navajo men, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy make two of three county commissioners in San Juan County Native American, reports.  

Sierra Club reports that both of the new San Juan County Commissioners are also outspoken supporters of Bear’s Ears National Monument.  It seems that President Trump may have to eat his own words when he said just before reducing Bear’s Ears by executive order,

“We will advance…a truly representative process, one that listens to the local communities that knows the land the best and that cherishes the land the most.”

There also broader implications for national politics. reported in October that in North Dakota, many tribal IDs won’t be accepted at polling places.  In case one forgets, North Dakota is also the site of another bitter fight between Native Americans and the federal government over the Dakota Access Pipeline.  In North Dakota, Native Americans make up 5.5 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 US Census.  5.5 percent may not mean much over the whole state, but it can be significant in local elections.  

Another sign of change in Native American representation is the election of the first two Native American congresswomen in US history: Democrats Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland in New Mexico.  We can all hope that this is a growing trend for a greater involvement in government by the first Americans as well as more diversity in representation.

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer      

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