April 18, 2014

Chavers: No Voting Rights in Indian Country

Around the Campfire

There is a conspiracy abroad to keep Indians out of the voting places. It keeps Indians from voting, and keeps Indians from winning elections. White voters have proved over and over that they will not vote for an Indian, even one who is highly qualified. Indian veterans coming back from World War II found they still could not vote, or buy a house, or get a decent job, or buy a car. They wondered what they had been fighting and dying for.

The conspiracy is wide and deep. It involves county clerks, county commissioners, local judges, city council members, police chiefs, and other officials. It involves a wide variety of schemes, among which are at-large voting, gerrymandering, lack of registration sites in Indian Country, failure to allow roving registrars, literacy tests, lack of voting places in Indian Country, intimidation, “packing” an Indian area, and making accusations of voter fraud.

These conspiracies lead to an astonishingly low voting rate among Indians, which runs about 20% to 25%. The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) found in a study done in the 1980s that only 15% to 20% of Indians in New Mexico were registered to vote.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to protect Indian voting rights. Despite the Act, Wild Bill Janklow, the Indian hating former governor and Member of Congress from South Dakota, fought the Voting Rights Act in that state for over a quarter of a century. Janklow did his part to make sure South Dakota kept its reputation as the “Mississippi of the North.” He made such comments as all AIM members should be shot, that Indians should be kept on reservations, and so on. And he raped young girls at will; he was never prosecuted for the most infamous case, that of Jancita Eagle Deer in 1966.

The lawsuit that finally enforced it in the state, Quiver v. Nelson, was the largest lawsuit in the history of the Act. Only 9.9% of Indians in the state of South Dakota were registered to vote.

Other states with terrible records of discrimination against Indians and voting are Montana, North Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

Until 25 years ago, there were almost no Indians in elected offices. There were almost no Indian state senators, state representatives, county commissioners, school board members, city council members, and sheriffs. There has never been an Indian governor, big city mayor, or city manager. There has never been an Indian cabinet member and only two Indians have ever served in Congress—Ben Reifel (SD) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO).

There are now some 85 elected Indian officials, mostly in state legislatures. There are two Indian sheriffs—Bruce Curnutt in LeFlore County, Oklahoma, and Scott Walton in Rogers County, Oklahoma. Almost all the other Indian elected officials are in state legislatures in New Mexico, Alaska, Arizona, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

The at-large voting scheme allows counties and school districts to keep Indians out of office. The Gallup-McKinley County Schools kept Indians at bay for decades, even though Indians were 65% of the population. Out of 14,000 total students in the district, 9,000 of them were Indians.

When NIYC won a lawsuit 15 years ago to go to district elections, Indians won three out of five positions on the school board. (But despite having won the majority on the board, one candidate, Annie Descheney, voted with her white friend from Gallup and put an Anglo man in as superintendent—to the chagrin of the Indians who were present on the day of the selection. They failed to hire a highly qualified Navajo man for the job.)

The earliest lawsuit was won in 1948. Miguel Trujillo (Isleta), a Marine Corps veteran of WWII, took the county registrar to court when he would allow him to register. He said, correctly, that the New Mexico constitution stated that Indians living on reservations could not vote. The famous Indian law expert brought suit against the registrar and the courts said that part of the state constitution was unconstitutional.

Janine Windy Boy brought suit in 1983 to have district elections in Montana for county commissions, and won. The U. S. brought suit in U. S. v. Blaine County, Montana to have district elections instead of at-large elections. Another suit in Nebraska did the same thing.

Rosebud County, Montana was accused of racial discrimination in its voting practices in another lawsuit filed in 1999. “The at-large election process is illegal,” said the lead attorney on the case, Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU, “because it prevents Indians from participating equally in the election process.” The ACLU has been the lead firm in filing many of the Indian cases.

Gerrymandering in Indian Country has been outrageous. State legislatures, governors, Senators, and Congressmen had conspired to break up Indian voting blocs for decades. Some of the Senators should be tried for high crimes and misdemeanors for their part in these schemes.

But despite the gains in recent years, voter discrimination remains a huge problem in Indian Country. I have often thought that if I were not committed to running a scholarship organization, I would get into voter registration work in Indian Country. It desperately needs to be done.



Dr. Dean Chavers is Director of Catching the Dream, a Native scholarship organization. His latest books are “Modern American Indian Leaders” published by Mellen Press and “Racism in Indian Country” published by Peter Lang Publishers. This column is adapted from the “Racism” book. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . His next book is “Broken Promises: Termination of Indian Treaties and the Aftermath,” due out in 2011.


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