Native American voters may have helped decide the 2020 election. But organizers say there’s still work to do


Daily file illustration by Jacob Fulton

The Daily spoke to 8th Ward aldermanic candidates Devon Reid and Matthew Mitchell. Reid and Mitchell will face off in Evanston’s April run-off election

Delaney Nelson, Assistant City Editor

Leading up to the 2020 election, Native American organizers across the country engaged in efforts to activate voters in their communities — and numbers in multiple key swing states showed they were successful. But even with high turnout at the ballot box, they say there is much work left to do.

There are currently 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States, as of March 2020. According to William Miller, community advocacy manager at the Native American Youth and Family Center, 40 percent of the country’s eligible Native American voters live in 36 cities throughout the United States.

While the state of Illinois and the federal government do not formally recognize any tribes within the state, Chicago hosts the third-largest population of American Indians living in urban areas in the United States. The city and its surrounding suburbs sit on the ancestral lands of many Native American tribes, including the Council of the Three Fires, which consists of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi Nations, as well as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, Fox, Kickapoo and Illinois Nations.

Many Indigenous people are eligible to vote but have faced difficulties getting to the ballot box due to voter suppression. According to “Obstacles at Every Turn,” a report published by the Native American Rights Fund, factors like geographic isolation, voter identification requirements and non-traditional mailing addresses all present hardships when many Native Americans attempt to vote. Technological barriers and depressed socioeconomic conditions can also exacerbate these problems or present new ones.

In an attempt to combat these voter suppression tactics during the 2020 election, organizations around the country mobilized Get Out the Vote efforts to register Indigenous people and encourage them to vote.

Miller, who is Blackfeet and Cherokee from Montana and Oklahoma, has participated in voter engagement work with the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. He said the country saw 1.8 million new Native American voters registered for the 2020 election. This year, the NUIFC adopted the slogan “Democracy is Indigenous” to emphasize that democracy has its origins in American Indian practices and teachings, he said. An example of Native American influence in democracy, he said, can be seen with the Iroquois Confederacy.

“Since colonization happened, we have been invisibilized, our communities have been shoved aside, and overlooked time and time again,” Miller said. “When our communities turn out to say, ‘We want these people to represent us,’ or ‘We want these policies to be passed, because it’s important to our community,’ we are making our invisible community visible again.”

Frankie Pedersen, who is Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, is the communications and campaigns coordinator for the American Indian Center in Chicago, and has also been involved with voter outreach efforts this year.

Pedersen said she has encountered many individuals who don’t want to participate in any aspects of the U.S. political system — including voting and participating in the census. This lack of participation is rooted in distrust of the federal and state governments within Native American communities, she said, a relationship that has been categorized by broken promises and violent oppression.

Much of the opposition Pedersen has heard has come from young Indigenous people, who have become disillusioned with the American political system. She said they’ve posed questions like “Why would I participate in the colonial state that has done nothing but hurt our people?” and “Is it worth having a seat at the table if this is a colonial white supremacist table?”

Pedersen said these feelings are valid, and this resistance is justified. Despite the disillusionment of some, many Indigenous voters turned out to vote this election and helped decide the results in some key swing states, like Wisconsin and Arizona.

While Pedersen does vote, she said voting is only a small portion of the ways American Indians and non-Indigenous people alike can work to create change. Voting, she said, is “one thing of a million other things that you should be doing.”

“The real work needs to be done within our communities, and within a local level, and how do you organize and support your communities, because that’s where things are most productive,” Pedersen said. “That’s how we start these movements, it starts in your own community.”

Since the election has ended, some organizations have shifted their focus from voter outreach to other initiatives. Samantha Kelty, staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said she is now working on redistricting efforts. Districts are often drawn with the intent to dilute the minority vote, which includes Native American votes, she said.

Pedersen said her work at the American Indian Center will now transition to a focus on building Native American political power in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. She said she hopes to connect with organizations in the area to provide urban Native Americans with the resources to run for office or become politically involved in other ways.

Both Miller and Pedersen said communities and governments can support Indigenous organizers by investing in BIPOC communities and actually listening to the voices of American Indians. Pedersen also said it’s important that Indigenous leaders aren’t tokenized.

This year, six Native Americans won their races to become members-elect to the House of Representatives, meaning the 117th Congress will have more American Indians than any previous session. This is part of what Pedersen sees as a “huge wave of Natives” getting more involved in the political process, a trend she hopes to see reflected in Chicago politics.

While the U.S. government cannot be decolonized or separated from White supremacy, Pedersen said taking part in the “White man’s game” is a necessary step to providing Native American communities with a certain level of protection.

“When it comes to protecting tribal sovereignty, when it comes to environmental justice and environmental law, when it comes to even things like the Indian Child Welfare Act, when it comes to these things, the government has a huge play in the role in this, so it’s helpful to have a seat at the table,” she said.

While there is still significant work to be done to support the country’s Native American communities, some organizers are optimistic that their efforts leading up to the 2020 election may pave the way for future change.

In October, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris released a plan for tribal nations on their campaign website, in which they pledged to strengthen the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the United States and American Indian tribes, increase access to health care, address ongoing violence against Native American women and “ensure Native Americans can exercise their right to vote.”

While only time can tell how the Biden administration will serve and protect American Indian interests or if they will produce more broken promises, Miller said some people are hopeful for the change in power.

“I didn’t necessarily see the deep rooted benefit throughout Indian Country of having Trump as president,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of hope that the Biden administration will usher in a new era of activists, changemakers, and the ability to really influence policy and systems changes at a greater level than we were able to during the Trump administration.”

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Twitter: @delaneygnelson

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