Despite some very important lawsuits, agreements, and legislative actions, voting rights in Indian Country are severely limited. Indians have had to fight to win the right to vote the way GIs had to fight the Germans in France and Germany—one block at a time. The successful case in a county in Montana has little or no relevance in Oklahoma. The Indians of Oklahoma have to fight their own battles to win the right to register to vote. They have to wage a separate battle to be able to vote for county commissioner. Then they have to wage a third battle to win the right to vote for school board members, and it is the same in every state.
The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) found a quarter of a century ago that only 20% of Indians in the Southwest were registered to vote. The same thing holds today. Registration drives have only been held in a few places in Indian Country. But people have found that the Indian vote can make a difference. The Indian vote has put sympathetic officials into office in Oklahoma, South Dakota, New Mexico, Alaska, Arizona, and other states.
A quarter of a century ago there were only a dozen and a half Indian elected officials. Most of them were in Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. Today there are at least 85 of them. They range from Bruce Curnutt, Sheriff of LeFlore County, Oklahoma, to State Senator Albert Hale in Arizona. Albert is the former Chairman of the Navajo Nation. Long-time State Senator John Pinto (Navajo) is still in office in New Mexico. Nine of them, all State Representatives, are from Alaska.
The highest Indian elected official is Denise Juneau, State Superintendent of Education in Montana. In a hotly contested election, the Democrat Juneau beat her Republican opponent in 2008. I’m proud to say we helped her earn two of her three degrees. She has an MA in Education and a JD in Law. Her parents Carol and Stan Juneau are really proud of her.
The resistance to Indian voting has been extreme. Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Wild Bill Janklow, who was then governor of South Dakota, forbade Lorna Herseth, the Secretary of State in 1977, to enforce it. He told her in a written opinion that he would pursue both legislation and court actions that would stop enforcement of the law in South Dakota.
Nothing seemed to stop Janklow in his anti-Indian campaigns. The only thing that stopped his career was his own foolishness, when he killed a man on a motorcycle when he was speeding one night several years ago. And it worked. When the U. S. brought a lawsuit against the state for its violations (Quiver v. Nelson), only 9.9% of the Indians in the state were registered. The South Dakota secretary of state, Chris Nelson, admitted to more than 800 violations of the Act.
South Dakota county registrars only registered new voters in one place—the county seat, off the reservation. When roving registrars were finally allowed on reservations, they immediately found themselves accused of voter fraud. People in South Dakota will not give up power easily.
One of the more infamous tactics of the anti-Indian forces is “packing.” They will load one district with all the Indian votes, so even when an Indian wins he will find he is outvoted two to one or four to one. It took a federal lawsuit to stop this practice in Buffalo County, South Dakota, home of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. The lawsuit was settled by a consent decree in 2003, after packing had been in place for decades.
There have been many heroes in the voting rights struggle. Miguel Trujillo (Isleta) served in the Marines in World War II, but when he went to register to vote in 1948, the registrar, Eloy Garley, refused to let him register. Garley said the New Mexico constitution prohibited Indians living on reservations from voting.
Mr. Trujillo got the famous attorney for Indian affairs, Felix Cohen, to file a lawsuit (Trujillo v. Garley). He won; the section of the NM constitution forbidding Indians to vote was declared illegal. Trujillo’s son Michael went to medical school and was head of Indian Health Service for a long time. His daughter Josephine also rose to the rank of Admiral in Indian Health. In Arizona at almost the same time, the case of Harrison v. Laveen overturned a similar law in Arizona.
States and counties do all kinds of things to limit the Indian vote. Gerrymandering, or playing with district boundaries to keep Indians out, is still widely done. Holding at-large elections, in which all candidates run in one district, has been used in numerous counties in the West—Tom Mix in South Dakota, McKinley in New Mexico, Navajo in Arizona, and Blaine in Montana. In fact the list is so long it could well take up all the space in this column.
Gallup-McKinley County Schools in New Mexico held at-large elections for decades until a lawsuit filed by NIYC overturned the practice. Out of five people on the school board, only one was an Indian and he was known as a go-along guy. Whatever the five white people on the board wanted to do, he would go along with it. But when district elections were forced on the school board, all of a sudden three out of five spots were Indians. The conditions in the schools have actually improved in the 15 years since this happened. But with a 65% dropout rate for Indians back then, and 50% now, they still have a long way to go.
There have been many heroes in the voting rights struggle. Janine Pease became the first Indian person, and first Indian woman, ever elected to chair a county committee of the Democrat party. She was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit, Windy Boy v. County of Big Horn, which changed the county election procedure from at-large to districts. When she was seated at the party meeting, some of the racist white women walked out of the meeting in protest.
A similar result obtained in Blaine County, Montana in United States v. Blaine County, Montana. The United States brought the action against the Blaine County Board of Commissioners and the Superintendent of Elections. The suit was filed on behalf of eight individuals and the Fort Belknap Community Council for the county holding at-large elections, which prevented Indians from participating fully in the political process.
Indians constituted 45.2% of the population, but no Indian had ever been elected to the Blaine County Commission. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that there was a history of racial discrimination against American Indians, racially polarized voting, “voting procedures that enhanced the opportunities for discrimination against American Indians,” depressed social conditions for Indians, and a tenuous justification for the at-large voting.
Five Indians from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming sued Fremont County under the Voting Rights Act, Section 2, and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The five plaintiffs are Patricia Bergie, Pete Calhoun, Gary Collins, James E. Large, and Lucille McAdams. The defendants were the five county commissioners, all Republicans—Doug Thompson, Lanny Applegate, Jane Adamson, Gary Jennings, and Pat Hickerson.
Janie Maynor Locklear led the fight for my tribe to end double voting. Under that scheme, the mostly white residents of the six towns in Robeson County, North Carolina got to vote for their town school board, and also to vote for the county-wide school board, which is where most Indian and Black people lived. The county residents, however, did not get to vote in the town school board elections. My great-uncle, John L. Godwin, was also very active in that struggle.
There have been 70 cases of Indians suing counties, states, municipalities, and others to gain the right to vote. It’s like every place demands its own lawsuit. People in power fight very hard to keep Indians from having the right to vote. But they will gladly accept Indians into uniform to fight for the nation. Indians have been over-represented in every war the U. S. has fought since World War One.
My friend Lawrence Hart (Cheyenne) of Oklahoma has been pushing people to register to vote for three decades. He is also one of the traditional leaders of his tribe. Mary Cohoe (Navajo) has been doing the same thing at Ramah and elsewhere. Hollis Stabler (Omaha) led the fight to have his tribe represented in Thurston County, Nebraska.
Keep going. Let’s get more Indians elected.
Dean Chavers, Ph.D., is the Director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program for American Indians, located in Albuquerque. His address is