Boozhoo, Band Members! If you are 18 years or older and eligible to vote but have not done so, this column is for you. If you have a family member who has not yet voted and does not have a plan to vote by November 3, this column is also for you.
First, a few updates. On October 23, I attended a meeting at Grand Portage of the Tribal Executive Committee of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, where all the Tribal Chairs were sworn in for a four-year term as a TEC Member. I attended several meetings in October with the Band Assembly about issues impacting Band members, state consultation sessions were held on issues like economic development, and we continued offering training sessions for Band officials and staff about our division-of-powers government that was provided by Jay Kanassatega, our first Solicitor General who was there when our Band Statutes were written.
October also included weekly Cabinet meetings with our commissioners, as we have been planning out the details of important work in multiple areas, including Band housing, continued work on slowing the pandemic and protecting Band members, economic development, social services, and natural resource planning. I also participated in different Get-Out-The-Indian-Vote forums, virtually and in person. It is our right to vote that I want to focus on this month.
In my lifetime, there has never been a more important election than the November 3 election coming up days after you receive this paper. The race for President in Minnesota is extremely close, and every single vote counts.
Personally, I will always support the candidate whose federal-state-tribal policies are most beneficial for Indian people and supportive of tribal sovereignty — from the Presidency down to School Board Member positions. On that note, Virgil Wind and Becky Clitso-Garcia are on the ballot for School Board in District I, so please get out the vote for them! And remember to vote for Brad Harrington in the County Commissioner race. For the state and federal races, you can learn more about the positions of the candidates by reading the Election Guide that was mailed to each home a few weeks ago.
This year, I am asking you to vote like your lives depend on it, because they might. And I am asking you to vote out of respect for our ancestors, who paid a steep price for our right to vote.
Voting rights for American Indian people have a long history involving suppression and inequality. In 1788, white men in the United States voted in their first election for President. They have had that right for 232 years.
132 years later on August 26, 1920, white women gained the right to vote.
And on June 2, 1924, American Indians gained the right to vote by passage of the American Indian Citizenship Act.
It was a long struggle to reach that point, and in other ways our struggle continues today. Beginning in 1914, at the start of World War I, many American Indian Ogichidaa across the country and in Minnesota joined the Army and fought overseas in the War. These brave Ogichidaa were not even U.S. citizens yet, but they fought for us and many died for us.
At the same time as our Ogichidaa were fighting overseas, in 1917 the Minnesota High Court decided that Native Americans did not have the right to vote in Minnesota. Red Lake members had sued for the right to vote, in a case called Opsahl v. Johnson. The Minnesota court decided that tribal members in Minnesota could not vote in county elections because they had not “yielded obedience and submission to the [Minnesota] laws.”
After World War I, the federal government took a different stance from the Minnesota court. Because of the sacrifice of our brave warriors, Congress finally decided that American Indian people had earned the right to be granted U.S. citizenship with full voting rights in 1924.
But even then, the matter of the right of American Indians to vote was far from settled. After passage of the American Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, states were still able to stop American Indians from voting by creating eligibility tests that included things like taxation, ability to speak English, tribal enrollment, and “incompetency.” New Mexico and Arizona didn’t allow Indians to vote until 1948, and Utah and North Dakota did not allow Indians to vote until 1958.
Other states, including Minnesota, looked the other way as some local election boards in Minnesota engaged in voter suppression tactics, like not providing voter information to American Indian citizens, by not allowing voting precincts to be set up on tribal lands, and by allowing local election officials in parts of Minnesota to turn away voters by making up excuses… like not speaking English or not being able to read. It was not until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the right to vote for all American Indians was secured through voter protection laws.
Today in the United States, there are still those who are fighting to suppress our right to vote. Some states have voter ID laws that do not accept tribal IDs for voter registration. Many reservations in western states do not have street names so there are no addresses, so tribal members instead pick up their mail in town at a P.O. Box. Some of these states specifically targeted American Indian voters by refusing to allow Indian voters to register vote in 2016 unless they had a physical address.
In Minnesota, we are more fortunate. We have same-day voter registration, so even if you are not registered, you can go to the polling place and register to vote with proof of your address. It used to be that an election judge could refuse to accept a tribal ID as government identification for Indians wanting to register to vote. The Mille Lacs Band fought hard against that issue in Minnesota several years ago, and we did win. You can bring your tribal ID to the precinct you live in and use that ID to register to vote.
There are still barriers, however. Many tribal members in Minnesota have to drive very long distances to vote on-site. This includes District II Band members living in Aitkin County. There used to be a polling place at East Lake, but it was shut down years ago due to concerns about cost by local officials. Now Band members must drive 90 miles round-trip to exercise their right to vote on Election Day. The Mille Lacs Band will continue working to change this before the 2022 election.
My hope is that most Band members have already voted by mail, or voted early. But if you are someone who has decided not to vote, for some reason, please reconsider. We need you. Your ancestors need you. Future generations need you. This is an election like no other, which may determine whether we go down a path where our rights are protected, our healthcare, our cultural sites, and natural resources are protected, or whether we will go down a path where our rights could be in jeopardy. We need you to vote!
If you have a family member who has not voted or has decided not to, talk to them. Help them make a plan. You can still vote early up through November 2. If you wait until election day to vote, please plan on the possibility of long lines due to social distancing and dress warm. Compared to the sacrifices our ancestors made, a little cold weather should not stop any Band member from voting. Let’s get out the vote to fight for our future, and to honor our ancestors who fought for our right to have a voice in the United States of America! Miigwech!