Native Americans: First to Settle, Last to Vote

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      November 13, 2020

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Native Americans: First to Settle, Last to Vote
Joel Bellman says this cartoon by the late cartoonist and illustrator Ron Cobb, who drew it for the Los  Angeles Free Press underground newspaper in 1967,has always been a particular favorite of his for making such a powerful point about Thanksgiving and our treatment of Native Americans.
When we think of vote suppression, we tend to think of the familiar, the obvious, the visible, aimed primarily at African-Americans in the Deep South: onerous poll taxes the poor can’t afford to pay; “literacy” tests filled with minutiae and trick questions; partisan “poll watchers” lurking to intimidate voters trying to cast their ballots. Those are the softer tactics. I will never forget my visit to Meridian, Mississippi, in the spring of 2018 when my wife and I made a pilgrimage to many of the key sites of the civil-rights movement. A few miles outside of town, along Fish Lodge Road, in the churchyard of the Okatibee Baptist Church, lies the humble gravesite of James Chaney, a 21-year-old African-American man who was murdered along with his White colleagues, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, by a posse of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The three civil rights volunteers were returning from visiting a local Black church, a center of community organizing that recently had been burned, when they were stopped and arrested by a local sheriff’s deputy who also belonged to the Klan. As they sat in jail, the deputy tipped his fellow Klansmen and plans were made to murder the three civil rights workers that night. The men were released after dark, and as they were making their way out of the county, the deputy and two cars filled with Klansmen chased them down the highway, intercepted them, and took them to a deserted road where they were executed. After local law enforcement refused to investigate, the FBI stepped in, and 44 days later, acting on a tip, the Bureau recovered the victims’ bodies from an earthen dam where they had been buried. The victims’ parents wanted them to be buried in the same cemetery together, but since Mississippi then enforced segregation even beyond the grave, the request was denied. Schwerner’s and Goodman’s remains were transported back to New York City, where Goodman is buried and Schwerner was cremated. Goodman’s parents went on to establish The Andrew Goodman Foundation to carry on the legacy of their son’s work, and it continues to this day as a public charity, promoting the Vote Everywhere campaign, a national campus-based movement that provides training and resources to a network of student volunteers working to register voters, eliminate voting barriers, and carry on social justice work. The words of the rabbi who spoke at Goodman’s funeral are worth recalling: “The tragedy of Andy Goodman cannot be separated from the tragedy of mankind. Along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner he has become the eternal evocation of all the host of beautiful young men and women who are carrying forward the struggle for which they gave their lives.” The struggle to secure and protect voting rights continues today. But while we may no longer have the Klan to worry about, we have the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, various other white supremacist and far-Right movements—and even the Republican Party and the president himself—who are determined to intimidate and discourage voters, dissidents, and other under-represented groups from participating in our democratic process, by any means, fair or foul. As we prepare for Thanksgiving, let us reflect on the irony that since long before our nation’s founding, Native Americans remain among the most underrepresented groups in our political process. They were only recognized with American citizenship and the right to vote under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment with the signing of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, four years after women were granted their suffrage under the Nineteenth Amendment. Nearly a century later, the Native American community has yet to make its voice fully heard in the political debate. According to the National Congress of American Indians, 34% of voting-age Native Americans, some 1.2 million people, are not registered, and of those who are, their turnout and participation rates lag as much as 14% behind those of other racial and ethnic groups. Deliberate vote suppression efforts are one reason, but there are other significant factors limiting full Native American political participation. A June 2020 report by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, Obstacles at Every Turn, identified a number of unique challenges faced by members of tribal nations, many of them a result of some 500 years of discrimination, racism, and exclusion. These include the lack of a conventional street address on tribal lands, lack of a conventional ID or birth records, geographical isolation, inadequate transportation, language barriers, unfamiliarity with voting technology, and low levels of education and socio-economic disadvantages, among other hurdles. There have been congressional efforts to tackle some of these problems, but like so much else in the Trump era, they have fallen to the bottom of a long list of other priorities. In March 2019, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico) introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019, a comprehensive bill intended to address a range of access and voter protection issues. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which soon assigned it to its Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties—where the bill has languished, unheard, ever since. Tellingly, while the legislation had 108 co-sponsors, only one was a Republican, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a Native American member of the Chickasaw Nation. Oklahoma has the second highest number of Native American constituents, behind only Alaska; Cole’s district represents 11 tribal nations. The entire Native American population in the United States constitutes barely half the population of Los Angeles County alone. Congress seems to believe that if the problems of Native American voting rights are not too big to solve, they are too small to matter. The ghosts of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, Medgar Evers, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless other voting rights advocates who sacrificed their lives to the cause might beg to differ. Congress has its work cut out in addressing the range of voter suppression tactics and disenfranchisement efforts that have proliferated since 2013, when a conservative majority on the Supreme Court invalidated a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They should add Lujan’s Native American Voting Rights bill to their “to-do” list. Anything less is a continuing reminder of how America still mistreats her indigenous peoples. The first to settle here should not be the last to vote here, and it would be only fitting if the Trail of Tears finally ended at the polling place.
Joel Bellman

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