Over the course of two days in June, a lively, engaged audience listened to federal and state candidates describe their positions and plans at a Native-run candidate forum at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, law school. These meetings are teaching moments, says OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux organizer of the forum and co-director of the voting-rights group Four Directions. “We’ll learn about the candidates, and they’ll learn about us.”
Candidates from the Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian parties answered questions posed by tribal leaders as well as by Native and non-Native attorneys and by staffers from Native nonprofits, such as the National Congress of American Indians. Amber Torres, chairwoman of Walker River Paiute Tribe, in Schurz, Nevada, served on one of these panels and says she felt “honored and blessed to take part in something that affects all of Indian country.”
This was the first of four Native-run candidate forums in swing states leading up to the 2022 election. In battleground states like Nevada, elections may be decided by a few thousand or even a few hundred votes. With this in mind, Native Americans there are establishing their presence, affirming their voting rights, and developing allies. Though sparsely covered by the media or election pollsters, Native voters care deeply about a place where they have lived for millennia and are determined to learn about candidates who will take it in a good direction.
Some of the Nevada discussions focused on policy—candidates’ support for economic development and increased broadband access on reservations, for example. Other exchanges were intensely personal. One young tribal member told Nevada’s attorney general, Aaron Ford, who is running for re-election, of racial slurs he experiences. The young man asked how Ford, a Black man, copes with this.
Remember your ancestors, Ford responded, and related the story of his enslaved four-times-great-grandfather, killed on the auction block when he declared he did not wish be sold and separated from his wife and children. “This is especially important at a time when people are trying to rewrite or erase history,” Ford said.
Mercedes Krause, an Oglala Lakota running for a Nevada seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, who was also a candidate at the forum, said, “After the meeting, I thanked the young man for being brave enough and trusting enough to ask his question.” Krause says the question “impacted me powerfully as a person and as a candidate.” It gave her the courage, she says, to persist in her effort to be a voice for her constituents in rural northeastern Nevada, many of whom—Native and non-Native alike—are struggling financially.
“I want them all to have dignified quality of life,” Krause says.
Though the 2020 Census found the Indigenous population to be relatively small in the U.S. overall—about 11 million individuals describe themselves as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander, either entirely or in combination with ancestry from other groups—they are clustered in certain states, increasing their political clout there. Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, which, like Nevada, anticipate close contests in November, will host the next three candidate forums that OJ Semans is organizing in the coming months. “These are all states where there is a large enough Native voting-age population to determine the outcome of the election,” Semans says.
He estimates that Georgia has 100,000 voting-age Natives. Arizona has 300,000-plus, and Wisconsin has more than 50,000. In Nevada, the number tops 60,000. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report calls these states’ 2022 Senate races toss-ups.
Natives are not party-line voters, Semans cautions. They are resolutely issue-oriented and typically find their priorities supported by Democrats, he says. President Biden, for example, has re-established the Tribal Nations Summit in Washington, D.C., reinstated the advisory White House Council on Native American Affairs, and appointed Native people to high-level positions. These include former New Mexico Democratic Congresswoman Debra Haaland of Laguna Pueblo as Secretary of the Interior Department, and Charles “Chuck” Sams III of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes to head the National Park Service.
The goal is not to throw any election any particular way, Randi Lone Eagle, chairwoman of Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, told the forum. It’s about having a seat at the policymaking table, with elected officials responsive to your concerns.
Issues of concern
Native issues discussed in Nevada included some that may be unfamiliar to non-Natives: tribal sovereignty; safeguards for children, families, and tribes under the Indian Child Welfare Act; and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people—primarily women and girls.
Attorneys at the Nevada forum also explained voting-rights law and the scores of federal lawsuits won since the 1960s to give Natives equal ballot-box access nationwide. They discussed Sanchez v. Cegavske, a 2016 federal lawsuit in which a judge ordered polling places for two Nevada reservations. One of several voting-rights suits organized by Four Directions over the years, the Sanchez decision led Nevada to codify Native voting rights into law in 2021.
The Native right to cast a ballot in that state had previously been variable and subject to capricious policies—refusing to set up early voting on reservations, for example, which forced voters there to make long, prohibitively expensive journeys to mainly non-Native towns. If and when the Native voters got to these voting places, they often experienced harassment, according to an Associated Press report.
To support the state voting-rights law and provide accessible, voter-friendly polling places, training sessions at the Nevada forum showed participants how to request reservation voting sites, set up ballot drop boxes, plan get-out-the-vote campaigns, recruit Native poll workers, and more. “We want to elect representatives who see us and hear us,” Krause declared in her speech to the attendees.
Krause and Cherokee Nevada State Assembly candidate Shea Backus—who also spoke at the forum—are part of a trend that began nearly a century ago, when Natives gained U.S. citizenship and the right to vote in 1924. Since then, despite limited registration opportunities, reduced voting hours, and long journeys to polling places where they faced intimidation, they have managed to provide the winning margin for numerous candidates, among them Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana; Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska; and Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington.
Since 2018, Natives have made news not just as voters but also as successful candidates for local, state, and national offices. That year, Peggy Flanagan of White Earth Nation became Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, and Sharice Davids of Ho-Chunk Nation and Debra Haaland won congressional seats for Kansas and New Mexico, respectively. Others, such as Troy Heinert, Rosebud Sioux, won not just state legislative seats but also party leadership positions, in his case as minority leader of the South Dakota senate.
As Native people participate in the political process, they recognize the similarity of their burdens to those of other marginalized groups. Don Ragona, Matinecock, development director of the Native American Rights Fund, explored this idea with a multicultural panel. The group featured Jeanine Abrams McLean, the Black president of Fair Count Georgia, and Xavier Morales, the Latinx executive director of The Praxis Project, a national group. Both described their organizations’ efforts to empower community-led change, and both stressed the resemblance of various peoples’ hurdles in elections and in American society more broadly.
Krause agrees. Campaigning in rural northern Nevada, she finds similar needs—for better education and health care and for living wages, for example—among Native and non-Native constituents. Meanwhile, isolation and poverty make it hard for both groups to access the ballot box. Krause’s campaign “is all about doing something with purpose for community,” she says.
For Native people, this spirit of purpose embraces many issues and numerous communities and extends over countless years, according to meeting organizer Semans. Many have fought and died for you to be here today, he told the audience. “Never think you’re alone.”