Improvements in Indian Country

Though the history of American Indian participation in and access to the political process has consistently been marred by discrimination and setbacks, in the last decade of the 20th Century and in the first 15 years of the 21st Century, advancements and improvements are being made across Indian Country.

Recent Electoral Advancement

During the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, Winona LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe, ran for vice president on the Green Party ticket alongside Ralph Nader.

In the same election years the number of Indian delegates (delegate) a person sent or authorized to represent others, in particular an elected representative sent to a conference to the Democratic National Convention meeting of delegates of the democratic party at the national level to select candidates for office and to decide party policy jumped from 50 to 75.

In 2004, the National Congress of American Indians instituted a nationwide voter registration campaign called Native Vote 2004 that contributed to some of the highest numbers of American Indian voter registration and voter turnout. In fact, some Native communities saw an increase of 50-150% in voter turnout.

Organizational Leadership

In 2004 two Minnesota organizations, National Voice and Native Vote-MN Style, led efforts to educate local Native voters. Nationwide, American Indians held a valuable position as “swing voters” at both the local and national level. During the same year, Election Protection Project, a national organization, placed poll observers in 12 states further encouraging the Native vote.

In Minnesota, the Native American Community Development Institute has emphasized the importance of voting within the American Indian community. The core message of this campaign is that valuing the vote will lead to better representation for American Indians in the government.

2008 Campaign Inclusion

During his 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama made history when he visited the Crow River Reservation, among the first times a presidential candidate campaigned on an Indian reservation. (In 1968, Robert Kennedy campaigned on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and visited Wounded Knee, the infamous site of the massacre of the Lakota people in 1890).

Obama Indian Reservation

President Obama visiting Stand Rock Sioux Reservation
President Obama visiting Stand Rock Sioux Reservation

One week after Obama’s reservation stop, Hillary Clinton campaigned on Montana’s Flathead Reservation. During the same election year there were 150 Indian delegates and four superdelegates delegates to party conventions that are automatically given a seat based on their status in the party to the DNC and, at Red Lake, there was record-setting voter turnout at nearly 83%.

Hearing American Indian Voices

In addition to increased efforts to improve American Indian voter registration and voter turnout, as well as participation in civic processes, the economic gains of tribal gaming The term used to describe Indian-owned gambling operations have also contributed to the political clout of Indian people.

In their book Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote, McCool et. al note that, “[H]istorically Indian tribes have been too poor to make campaign contributions or organize national lobbying Advocating for certain changes in government by working directly with officials efforts, but that situation began to change with the advent of Indian gaming. Recent years have seen systematic increase in campaign contributions from Indian tribes, primarily those with gaming revenues."

With increased American Indian lobbying efforts in both Washington, D.C., and at the state level, more attention is being paid to Indian voters and issues important to Indian people.

Ongoing Voting Rights Efforts

In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice proposed a piece of legislation titled Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act of 2015 to the U.S. Congress. The purpose of the Act is to address obstacles faced by federally recognized Indian tribes to voting, such as access to polling places.

The ultimate goals of the pending legislation is to reduce travel time and distance required by many American Indians to register and cast their ballots. It would allow tribal leaders to request on-reservation polling places at the expense of the states, just as other off-reservation polling sites do.

The ongoing efforts of American Indian activists, politicians and lobbyists grow increasingly important as tribal nations and individual Indian citizens are recognized for their voting power. As scholars have pointed out, American Indian elected officials have the ability to improve laws and regulations, services and American Indian access to government more effectively than non-Native officials.