- By Levi Rickert
Non-Natives often wonder how American Indians celebrate the Fourth of July — or Independence Day — the day of the “birth” of the nation 245 years ago in 1776. As with any other group of Americans, Native people are not monolithic, therefore, the answer is there is no set way.
Some American Indians completely reject the holiday. But quite frankly, as with other holidays that provide a day off work, they are happy for the paid holiday. Others in Indian Country embrace American patriotism.
However, this year two things may impact the way American Indians embrace Independence Day.
One is the recent discovery of the remains of more than 1,000 children attending residential schools in Canada. With Interior Secretary Deb Haaland launching an investigation established through the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, many American Indians are bracing for a report on the deaths of Indian children at U.S. boarding schools. The discoveries have caused trauma that have shifted attitudes to how the federal government treated American Indians throughout history.
The second reason for Native people to have an unfavorable view of the U.S.A. this year is the blow the U.S. Supreme Court dealt American Indian voters in Arizona this week when it allowed two voting laws viewed as suppressing the Native vote.
Arizona has history of suppressing the Native vote
During World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps trained 29 Navajo men at Camp Pendleton to communicate in a code undecipherable to most people because the Navajo language was an unwritten complex language. By the end of the war, some 400 Navajo men had participated in every major Pacific conflict speaking in code, a code never broken by enemy forces. It is the only code in modern history that was never broken.
This group that served its country in a gallant display of support and helped save democracy are known as the Navajo Code Talkers.
While their heroic contribution was significant in defending democracy, upon return to their homelands, Navajo code talkers who lived in Arizona were not allowed to vote in elections.
The reasons for these denials could add a chapter to the Jim Crow South that denied Blacks their right to vote for decades. In spite of American Indians being granted U.S. citizenship in 1924, Arizona election officials maintained American Indians living on reservations were disqualified to vote under state law. A second reason was Arizona state officials said American Indians were “under guardianship, non compos mentis, or insane.”
Given the valor of Navajo Code Talkers and other American Indians from other tribes in the state, the disqualifying arguments were deemed no longer valid in 1948 when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled American Indians could vote.
Even with the right to vote, Arizona election officials implemented Jim Crow-like tactics, such as literacy tests to American Indians who wanted to vote. They were required to read the U.S. Constitution in English and write their own names. Since English was not the first language for many American Indians, many failed the test, thereby denying the would-be voters their right to vote.
These literacy tests were outlawed in the 1970s.
Through the years, Native voters in Arizona have faced obstructions to their voting rights. For instance, on the Navajo Nation, which is often compared to the size of West Virginia, some Native voters have to travel up to 100 miles on subpar nearly impassible roads when important elections are held.
Voting precincts determined by Arizona election officials are often not within boundaries that are known to Navajo voters.
U.S. Supreme Court Rules Down Party Lines
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a split 6-3 decision along ideological lines. Republican-appointed justices voted to uphold two Arizona voting laws that aim to suppress the votes of American Indians and Hispanics. The court concluded that disparate impacts on minority groups would typically not be enough to render voting rules illegal under the act.
At issue were two laws: one bars the counting of provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct; the other bars the collection of absentee ballots by anyone other than a family or caregiver.
“Today’s decision acknowledged the inequitable burden created by Arizona’s laws, including specifically upon Native voters, but indicated that it was not inequitable enough to matter. Since when have our American ideals been that discriminatory policy is okay as long as it is just a little discrimination? It is now up to Congress to clearly defend the ideal that every vote and every voice counts,” said Native American Rights Fund (NARF) staff attorney Jacqueline De León (Isleta Pueblo).
Voting is one of the fundamental rights in a democracy. Laws that add impediments to suppress Native voters provide a blow to democracy. Further, they disregard the vast contributions American Indians have made to the country that celebrates its 245th birthday today.
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