This year has shone a light on how white supremacy, racism, systemic oppression, and institutionalized racism impact Indigenous, Black, brown, Asian, immigrants, Two Spirit, LGBTQ+, and non-binary relatives. But those of us coming from these communities have always known that these economic and social inequities exist. Because of our communities’ lived experiences, many of us were born into the work of advocating for the next generations in the fight for racial, social, economic, and environmental justice.
As a Lakota woman, I believe in Mitakuye Oyasin—the concept that we are all related, or all my relations—because as Native, Indigenous people, we not only look to our own relatives and community, but we recognize that all people and things are connected. That one person or animal or resource is not above another—we live in harmony and connectedness to our people, the lands, traditions, ceremonies, and way of life. For me, that is why it is so important to vote.
It’s true that Indian Country faces obstacles to civic engagement and voting. Polling sites are scarce and sometimes inaccessible due to the locations of our reservations or a lack of transportation. Many Natives have “nontraditional addresses” and rely on P.O. boxes, which was used as a tool of voter suppression in North Dakota ahead of the 2018 midterm election. In addition, the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t deliver mail to many of our communities due to poor road conditions or unnamed streets. Other challenges include language barriers for our elders with few translated materials available, difficulties obtaining ID cards, and a lack of internet access to help address these and other issues. While tribal leaders have mobilized in response to these barriers, it’s important that the entire community continues showing up at the polls.
When we come together to hold the government accountable and be part of the process to develop informed policy, we can prioritize health care, mental health services, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, rights and equality for Two Spirit relatives, and education. The pandemic has highlighted our needs even more. Even at the beginning of the pandemic when lawmakers were putting together the COVID-19 stimulus relief package, tribal governments were dramatically underfunded and aid was delayed. Then we saw some of the highest infection rates per capita in Navajo Nation, the White Mountain Apache Nation, and across the U.S. in some of our smaller communities. Native people have survived plagues, pandemics, and genocide. We have lost many of our relatives since 1492 and with this new virus, we are losing more.
If we vote, we can also choose leaders from our own communities who will understand and represent our interests, respect our sovereignty, and ensure the U.S. upholds its treaty obligations which have too often been ignored. Without accurate and respectful representation, Native people will not be advocated for and included in important discussions from policies to pipelines. According to Native Vote, we have four Native Congress members in the U.S. House of Representatives. If representation in Congress was proportional to the U.S. Native population, we would have two senators and eight Native members in the House. Civic engagement is how we can make that happen!
While we know the current political system and frameworks have always excluded us and never benefited us, we can exercise our voice and presence in this colonial system by making sure we vote and are counted. To ensure we’re heard, there are three steps we must take: Complete the census today, register to vote, and cast our ballots. Each element matters.
Filling out your census
The 2020 census data will help to determine the allocation of congressional seats, redistricting for voting, and may impact the distribution of almost $1 billion in annual federal resources for Indian Country, which is already a small slice of the federal budget. The government uses census data to inform policy changes and funding formulas for critical programs that Indian Country needs: education, health care, elder programs, child care, roads, housing, and economic development.
But according to the National Congress of American Indians “Indian Country Counts,” American Indian and American Native relatives were undercounted by almost 5% in the 2010 census. A large proportion of us live in “hard to count” (HTC) areas as far as the census is concerned, with 52.4% of American Indian and American Native people in South Dakota living in HTC tracts— 78.6% in New Mexico, 68.1% in Arizona, 65.6% in Alaska, and 49.9% in Montana.
With our communities struggling, even with our resilience and all the heart work we are undertaking, we need to ensure that we are counted in the next census so that our needs can be met. The response time has been cut short with an Oct. 15 deadline, so there is still at least a day remaining to send the message that we count.
Registering to vote
According to Native Vote, 34% of the total American Indian and American Native population over the age of 18 years old, alone or in combination with another race, are not registered to vote. That means we have roughly 1.2 million potential new eligible voters that can be part of rebuilding this democratic system.
While the election is already underway, in many states it’s not too late to get yourself registered and help others do the same. For example, in occupied Tonvangaar lands—otherwise known as Los Angeles, California, where I live—people can still register to vote until Oct. 19, and can still request a mail-in ballot until Oct. 27. The California Native Vote Project is offering resources and help to get people registered within the state. In South Dakota, where I am, a citizen of the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota as a Kul Wičasa Lakota, voters can also register until Oct. 19. Native voters around the country can check to ensure they are registered through Natives Vote 2020.
Why I choose to vote
Once you’ve filled out the census and registered to vote, the next critical step is to cast a ballot. I vote because I do not want to remain silent and complicit in a system that perpetuates systemic oppression and racism. There are no perfect candidates, and I know the choices we have for this November election aren’t what many of us want. Some feel their participation in a colonial system by voting makes them complicit complicit. Many may feel like that they can’t vote for either option for president because it goes against what they believe in as survivors of sexual assault. I just want to say that I hear you, I see you, and I understand. But when we exercise our right to vote and elect leaders that can move us in the direction we need for that future of all people, we can truly have a long-lasting impact.
This is especially true with local and state elections, which are just as important as the presidential election. A lot of change happens locally, which in turn creates and supports national legislation. Local elections are our opportunity to ensure our communities can benefit from policy, and to fight against social and economic inequities closest to home.
While long lines, few polling centers, and a lack of support can make civic engagement frustrating, we must stand strong. All of our communities need to be visible and our voices need to be heard. When we vote, we rise. Let’s rise together.
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