When they returned from
World War II,
many Indian veterans were upset that they still
could not vote. They had fought for their country,
only to be denied this basic constitutional right
when they got home. They began to lobby
and the state legislatures to give them suffrage
rights. They had been exposed to the world outside
the reservation, some for the first time, and had
started to learn that they had been cheated out of
many things, such as adequate housing, an adequate
decent jobs, and the right to vote. They found they
could not get loans to buy cattle, to start
businesses, to build houses on reservations, and to
buy cars and trucks.
Indians could still not vote
as of 1948. The denial of the right to vote was in the constitution of the State
of New Mexico. It stated that Indians living on reservations could not vote in
state and federal elections. The
Bureau of Indian Affairs
had started to push to change such laws before the war started, but had gotten
sidetracked by the war.
When Miguel Trujillo, from
Isleta Pueblo and a veteran of the Marine Corps during World War II, went to
register to vote, he was told by the county registrar, Eloy Garley, that he
could not register since he was an Indian living on a reservation.
Trujillo was incensed. He
brought suit against the county registrar and won. (Trujillo
v. Garley) Felix Cohen, who had written the definitive book on Indian
law, the Handbook of Federal Indian Law,
was Trujilloís attorney. Finally, in 1948, Indians in New Mexico could vote for
the first time. Trujillo and Cohen became friends and worked on other issues of
in New Mexico and in the South.
The case also debunked the
myth that Indians did not pay taxes. The only taxes Indians did not pay, the
court said, was taxes on the land the government held in trust for them. They
had to pay sales taxes, income taxes, and all other taxes.
In that same year, a lawsuit
Indian veteran, Frank Harrison, in
Arizona, let Indians vote for the first time in that state. (Harrison
and Austin v. Laveen) Harrison was a member of the Mohave Tribe. He had
tried to register to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona, and been denied by the
county recorder, Roger Laveen. The ubiquitous Felix Cohen was also one of the
attorneys in this landmark case. The
National Congress of American Indians,
Department of Justice, and the
Department of the Interior
also filed amicus curiae (friends of the
court) briefs in this case. Thereafter, it was clear in all states of the union
that Indians could vote in tribal, state, local and federal elections.
Utah, however, did not get around to
removing this barrier to Indian voting for another two decades.
The other states that had
restricted Indian voting fell in lineóto a limited extent. They continued to
restrict Indian voting by refusing to allow roving registrars, by charging the
poll tax, and by gerrymandering Indian votes to deny Indians the right to vote
and to run for office.
But the legacy of Indians
being denied the right to vote is still strong. Most Indians are either not
interested in national issues, or are afraid that if they vote in national
elections they will somehow lose their membership in their tribe. The latter is
not true. And many barriers still exist to keep Indians from registering and
voting. They include having one single election place in a county, requiring
voters to travel from their reservation to the county seat to register to vote,
refusing to allow roving registrars to register voters, and holding elections in
places hostile to Indian voters.
Indian people have only
slowly started, since 1980, to vote in increased numbers in national elections.
The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) of Albuquerque found in surveys in the
1980s that only 15 percent to 20 percent of Indians in Arizona and New Mexico
were registered to vote in state and
In most states, Indians are
under 10 percent of the eligible voters. In only three states are Indians more
than 10 percent of the total population. But in some cases, the Indian vote has
been critical to the success of candidates. The Indian vote defeated the
re-election of Slade Gorton, the anti-Indian former Attorney General of
Washington State. Gorton was the lead attorney for sport fishermen who lost the
case in the Boldt decision (U. S. v.
Washington) that gave Indians the right to half the salmon and steelhead
catch in the state. He ran for the Senate on an anti-Indian platform and won,
but lost his bid for re-election when Indians mobilized against him.
Gary Johnson, the Republican
governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, won both elections with the help of
the Indian vote and donations from tribal casinos. His opponent in the first
election, Bruce King (Democrat), had waffled on support for tribal casinos
during his third term as governor. This lost King almost all the Indian support.
The Indian vote, which was about 6 percent of the total, put Johnson over the
top in his first election in 1994. His opponent in the second election, my
friend Martin Chavez, was the Democratic mayor of Albuquerque. Martyís lack of
spirited support for tribal casinos also cost him the election; Johnson won 54
percent to 46 percent in 1998. If Marty had had 3 percent more votes from
Indians and 2 percent more from Hispanics, who are one of the main customers of
the tribal casinos, Marty would have been governor.
Larry Echo Hawk, the recent Assistant
Secretary for Indian Affairs, was the first Indian to win an election for
Denise Juneau, who is Mandan and
Hidatsa, won the election in 2008 for superintendent of public instruction in
Montana. Juneau is the second Indian
person in the
of the U. S. to win such a statewide seat. She obviously won with mostly
non-Indian votes, since Indians constitute less than 10 percent of the voting
population in the state. It helped that she is an attorney and a former school
teacher who paid her dues learning the system. She ran a spirited campaign, and
defeated a well-known opponent. She was one of our scholarship students for her
masterís degree in English from
and for her law degree from the
University of Montana.
Indians voted overwhelmingly
for president in 2008, and probably added one or two percent to his election
margin. With up to a million Indians voting nationwide, they could swing the
margin in a close election, something numerous Indian voting advocates have
pushed for years.
For the first time in 1980
there was an active campaign within the Democratic Party to have a voice in the
election for president. Billie Masters, a Cherokee from
California, headed the campaign. There
were a dozen and a half Indian delegates at the convention. In 1984 there were
28 Indian delegates to the national convention of the Democratic Party. In 1988
there 51 Indian delegates, and in 1992 there were 62. In 1984, Roger Jourdain,
Ada Deer, Ruby Ludwig, Verna Wood and I headed First Americans for Mondale. We
had 28 Indian delegates at the Democratic convention, raised $32,000, and
registered 30,000 new Indian voters. The Democrat Mondale lost to the Republican
In 1988, a group of people
put together an Indian effort to support the unsuccessful campaign of Michael
Dukakis. He lost to George H. W. Bush. In 1992, attorneys Kevin Gover and Cate
Stetson of Albuquerque headed First Americans for Clinton, and repeated their
efforts in 1996. Ada Deer headed the BIA in Clintonís first term. Gover headed
the BIA in the second Clinton term.
There are now about 85 Indian
elected officials in the United States. They are state senators and
representatives, local sheriffs, county commissioners, and city council members.
They have more authority than at any time in Indian history to influence budgets
and policies. But the Indian vote is still too weak.