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Native Vote 2024. As Indigenous voters gear up for national and local elections, some citizens of sovereign nations face barriers to voting on the issues that most impact their communities.

Two recent acts of voter suppression against Native communities have emerged in central Michigan and upstate New York, both involving local school board elections. 

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In both Michigan and New York are acts of erroneous districting practices that suppressed a tribal nation’s ability to have a say in the quality of their children’s education. In Michigan, reservation residents were voting for the incorrect school district. In New York, the Onondaga Nation was excluded entirely from having a say in what happens to their very own nation school. Both cases bring to light the continued struggle of sovereign tribal nations exercising their voting rights.

However, when it comes to civic engagement outside the tribal community, each nation has differing views and opinions on whether or not to vote in non-tribal elections. In Michigan, it is the general consensus among the Indigenous community that voting is a must. In the Onondaga Nation, the community believes that voting in non-tribal elections undermines their sovereignty. 

In October 2022 Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, Melissa Isaac, a tribal citizen of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan and the head of the Indigenous Education Initiative for the Michigan Department of Education, was asked to fill a vacant seat on the Mt. Pleasant Public School Board. Isaac was excited for the chance to be the Indigenous representation on the board, as most of the kids from the reservation attend Mt. Pleasant schools. 

Isaac resides on the Saginaw Chippewa Isabella Indian Reservation, near Mt. Pleasant. When she was initially asked to fill the position, she was unsure of her eligibility because her voting ballot — like those of others who live on the reservation —  does not include Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. Instead, it includes a neighboring school district. Isaac provided her address to the current members of the school board at the time, and they assured her she was eligible to fill the position. 

“​​My first reaction to being asked was, ‘I don't think I'm eligible,’” Issac told Native News Online. “When I vote … (my) ballot is for the board of education members for Shepherd Public Schools.” 

Isaac has served on the board ever since. This year, her seat is up for reelection and she has to garner enough signatures for her name to be on the November 2024 ballot. This is where she discovered the voting discrepancy. 

Isaac wanted to center her signature collection efforts in her own tribal community. Some people she approached were reluctant to sign her petition because they typically had voted for members of the Shepherd Public Schools’ Board of Education. She explained to them that, even though it seemed unusual, they were eligible to sign her nominating petition — they just wouldn’t be able to vote for her in November.     

“I can run, but I can't vote for myself,” Issac said. “When I said that out loud, I was like, this doesn't sound right to me.”

Isaac then took it upon herself to get to the bottom of the issue. She reached out to the County Clerk's Office the day before Memorial Day, May 24, where they asked her where she pays property taxes. She explained that those who live on tribal land don't pay property taxes. The clerk's office then took her address and looked at where those around the tribal land pay their property taxes. The last thing Isaac heard before the call was briefly disconnected was “they are?”.

After getting reconnected they informed her that they will fix this issue right away and make sure that those on tribal land who are within the Mt. Pleasant Public Schools district area will be voting for Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. 

Through Michigan’s online voter information site, Isaac checked her ballot in the following days to see if anything had changed. On May 28, her online ballot stated her voting school district was Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. Isaac has also asked others who live on the reservation to see if theirs have been updated. So far, all of those she's spoken to have seen the change. 

“It dawned on me that it is 100 years of the Indian Citizenship Act and voting rights and how states, even in spite of that, still made it difficult for our people to vote. Now, up until 2024, I didn't have my full voting rights until Friday before Memorial Day. I have a problem with that,”  Isaac said. “There's also a sovereignty issue here because why should it matter who the people around us pay their property taxes to, to distinguish where my right to vote is?”

School Board elections are local elections where voting eligibility is decided on whether or not your place of residence sits within the school district boundaries. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s Isabella Reservation sits within the boundaries of the Mt. Pleasant School District. In Michigan, school board elections are on the same ballot as state and federal primary and general elections. However, the process in New York is different —  school board elections are held separately from all other elections. 

Cassandra “Bean” Minerd, a member of the Eel Clan from the Onondaga Nation, is a strategist for the Racial Justice Center at The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, tasked with defending the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and civil rights.

Minerd explains that the Onondaga Nation School (ONS), located on the Onondaga Nation territory south of Syracuse, is run by the state. The school currently serves pre-K to eighth grade. The school is part of the Lafayette School District from which it is to receive funding and support; however, the building, Minerd said, is in disarray. 

“Everything in that building is beautiful, but their infrastructure is not. It's very impaired. Its roof is caving in, doors are not security locked, students are sharing two subjects in one classroom. There are students with disabilities in the hallway, there's no addition for these kids that need them,” explained Minerd.

ONS has put in a request for general repairs to the entryway doors for more 15 years and is only now saying that it will fix the doors by this summer.

ONS, and the other Indigenous schools in New York, do not receive funding in the same way as other public schools. These schools must make a direct request to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) for their funding. This does not guarantee money for capital improvements. All other public schools receive some amount of annual capital improvement funding.

In an attempt to remedy this issue, in 2022 New York Governor Kathy Hochul allocated funding to the three Indigenous schools across the state. Before this, ONS hadn’t seen a dollar for capital improvements in seven years.

Although funding is a major issue for the school, having representation on the Lafayette School District board is where the change begins. 

In 2020, Onondaga Nation leaders asked to have a voting presence on the board, referencing how in the 1970s, Verna Cook from Mohawk Nation petitioned New York State courts to vote in district elections and run for vacant board seats. The district received inquiries from Onondaga Nation community members during the fall of 2023 who were interested in serving as a voice on the board.

“Lafayette School District has always told the Onondaga Nation since we are a sovereign nation, and do not pay taxes, we are not qualified to vote, and have no say on the school board elections as well as the school board budgets for the schools including the Onondaga Nation School,” Minerd said.

Historically, a clan mother, Freida Jacques, served as an ex-officio, non-voting board member, from the early 2000s until 2014. Jacques would sit with the board and participate in board discussions but was not eligible to vote on matters since she was not an elected board member.

The NYCLU contacted the district early this spring to request their policies. A few weeks later, after the board met in late April, the district changed its policies to make it clear that Onondaga Nation residents can vote in school board elections. This doesn’t mean that everyone is now jumping at the chance to vote; the Onondaga Nation believes that voting in non-tribal elections may undermine their sovereignty. Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, Director of the Racial Justice Center, learned this throughout her work with the Onondaga Nation.

“Because it's such a traditional nation, there is still a lot of hesitancy or unwillingness to participate in voting. They really stand strong and firm on their belief that they're a sovereign nation, and they don't participate in the political process,” explained Owens-Chaplin. “So we're trying to differentiate that this is not participation in general politics, this is participation in a school board. Then also setting out a memo to explain you're not going to lose your sovereignty by voting, you're going to maintain your sovereignty by voting.”

The  NYCLU is also working on advocating for inclusive language on the voting form itself, such as “U.S. Citizen or Citizen of a sovereign nation,” when voters are prompted to assert their voting eligibility. 

A statement from Jeremy Belfield, Lafayette Public Schools Superintendent, cites the policy the district follows that affirms the Onondaga Nation citizens the right to vote and run for the school board. 

New York State Education Law Section 2102 is the code that the school district follows. In it, it states that to run you must be a resident of the school district, or “a resident of the district or reservation, for at least one year." 

Superintendent Belfield also updated the FAQ section of the Board of Education website to help clarify how Onondaga Nation community members could run for or vote in the school district election. He has made it clear that he supports an Onondaga Nation citizen running for the board. 

“One Onondaga Nation community member reached out to me when we announced that nomination petitions for the board of education were available. I encouraged the community member to stop by the district office and pick up a nominating petition. Unfortunately, the community member did not return a nominating petition or run for the board,” Belfield said. 

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About The Author
Neely Bardwell
Author: Neely BardwellEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Neely Bardwell (descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian) is a staff reporter for Native News Online. Bardwell is also a student at Michigan State University where she is majoring in policy and minoring in Native American studies.