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WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris and Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland (Pueblo Laguna) met with four tribal representatives to discuss expanding access to voting for Native American communities.

Harris called Native voter suppression a “long standing and a recent issue.”

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Long-standing because Native Americans weren’t universally given the right to vote until 1924. In Arizona and New Mexico, state legislatures barred Natives from voting until 1948 and “that was on paper, much less what happened in terms of practice,” Harris said in a recorded statement.

The issue is “recent” because 30 new voting laws that effectively target tribal communities were passed in 18 states since the 2020 election, she added. In Arizona, one of those laws—upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this month—further restricts state voting protocol, which Native American and other minority communities say will effectively reduce their access to voting.

In attendance on Tuesday was Oglala Sioux Tribal President Kevin Killer; chairwoman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, Shelly Fryant; president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, representing 168 federally recognized tribes, Julie Kikta; Diné Navajo Nation voting activist, Allie Young; and co-founder of the North Dakota Native Caucus, Prairie Rose Seminole.

Each representative shared with the White House specific barriers to the polls their communities face in North and South Dakota, Montana, Alaska and Arizona.

“In Montana, North Dakota, for example, I've heard stories about it taking at least one hour each way to get to the polling location, and then get back home,” Harris said. “God forbid there’s a snowstorm, and what that might mean in terms of the encumbrances on the ability of people to exercise their right to vote.”

Young, 31, told Native News Online that she was impressed by Harris’s preparedness for the meeting.

“Sometimes, we come into these rooms and we have to do sort of like a Native history lesson at the beginning, and put everything into context. But she came in thoroughly prepped.” Young said. “It allowed us to really jump into the concerns that we have.”

Those concerns include distance to polling location; restrictive voting laws that toss out votes cast in the wrong precinct or bars collection of absentee ballots by anyone other than a family or caregiver; difficulties with receiving absentee ballots to home addressed on reservations; and lack of translated voting materials available for tribal elders.

As a result of the meeting, Harris urged Congress to pass two laws that would make voting more accessible for Native communities, as well as other historically disenfranchised voters: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the For The People Act. The bills would increase polling stations, provide free early ballots and absentee ballots, and provide bilingual election materials and oral language assistance. 

Aaron Payment, Chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and First Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, told Native News Online that allowing equal access to the polls will benefit the world.

“We want to make it easier for people to vote because when everybody votes this world would be kinder and more caring and certainly will represent the interests of American Indians,” he said.

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Tribal leaders on Tuesday also advocated for Congress to roll language from the failed Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019, specifically protecting the rights of Native American and Alaska Native voters, into one of the other bills.

Tribal attendees at the meeting also shared with Harris and Haaland some of their solutions in ensuring their people vote. During the 2020 presidential election, Allie Young, founder of Protect the Sacred, organized the “Ride to the Polls” initiative, where 15 tribal citizens rode 10 miles on horseback to their nearest polling place.  

Prairie Rose Seminole co-founded a caucus to build long-term political engagement within Indigenous communities.

Seminole said that Harris informed the group that the Justice Department has doubled their voter protection staff as part of its effort to double down on voting rights. 
 
"The VP is very committed to this work and willing to listen to those of us on the front lines of our democracy–which will only grow stronger when we all can participate," Seminole told Native News Online. "Madam VP seemed to understand the unique history we have as Native peoples, the intention to leave us out of the process of the systems around us and the momentum we’re starting to build."
 

Secretary Haaland shared her own experience with ensuring her community had access to the right to vote “in a country where tribal nations are credited with establishing the oldest participatory democracy in the world.”

“I would buckle my child, Somah, in the car, lace up my sneakers, and go door to door in rural New Mexico, registering voters,” Haaland said on Tuesday. “I would show up to community gatherings with my clipboard, ready to give election information. I knew that when we had a voice, we could make a difference, and I still believe that wholeheartedly… It's long past time that we secure voting rights for people, regardless of where they are from.”

Moving forward, tribal leaders and advocates say they will hold the Biden administration accountable to follow through on its promise to work with Indigenous nations.

“The piece that I brought to the table, being the youngest person at the table and representing the youth’s voice… that's a piece that the vice president was excited about, and really wants to work with around youth voter engagement,” Young said. “Walking away from the meeting, I was so relieved to see how engaged the Vice President was. You could tell she was invested.”

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna Kunze
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 U.S. journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Alaskan Arctic region. Prior to that, she served as lead reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.