Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, base organizers in the Navajo Nation were able to attend chapter meetings and run door-to-door campaigns to encourage people to register to vote. As the pandemic continued to overwhelm tribal communities, local organizers had to find other ways to reach Native American voters while limiting physical contact to prevent the virus from spreading. It was a challenge considering that many homes on Indian Reservations don't have formal addresses and post offices are typically miles away.
However, the pandemic didn't stop organizations like the Rural Utah Project from getting the job done. When the lockdown was lifted in May, field organizers from the Navajo Nation – whose territory spans New Mexico, Utah, and northern Arizona – returned to the ground leaving flyers with voting information in resealable plastic bags in people's doors. The group had also partnered with Google to provide plus codes that serve as addresses based on latitude and longitude in parts of the Navajo nation that are difficult to track, and set up hotlines to direct indigenous voters to the right place to direct as these are usually confusing constituencies. Many believe that grassroots supporters' robust election campaign influenced the results of the state elections.
The Rural Utah Project organized drive-through voter registration events across the Navajo nation ahead of the 2020 election. Rural Utah Project
Indigenous peoples make up nearly 6 percent of the population of Arizona, with the electorate in the Navajo nation reaching around 67,000. Although indigenous peoples are often overlooked by the Democratic Party and labeled as “something else” by the media, district data shows that 60 to 90 percent of Navajo nation's voters voted for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. And while the presidential race has already been set for Biden, it is very likely that Arizona will win too. He currently leads the state with 15,000 votes – a fraction of the votes the Navajo gave him.
In Wisconsin, another major battlefield state, Indigenous voters may also have supported Biden's narrow victory. Indians make up about 1.2 percent, or 70,000, of the state's population. While the exact percentage of votes Biden received is still uncertain, some key facts point to voter turnout in tribal countries. Menominee County, which is known as Bellwether for the state, overlaps with the Menominee Reservation and has an indigenous population of nearly 90 percent. Biden won the county by 1,303 votes, compared with 278 votes from President Donald Trump.
"Without the tribal nations, Biden really wouldn't be in office," said Tara Benally, field director of the Rural Utah Project, a nonprofit that advocates and supports underrepresented voters. "Just seeing the turnout, Biden should know and really understand that he has to work with these indigenous nations – because if Biden doesn't get through for these indigenous nations, what does that mean for him? Where does Trump come back in?"
The Navajo Nation turned out to be Democrats after being ignored by Republican leaders in the pandemic
2020 in particular has been a challenging year for tribal communities. Indigenous peoples have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, exacerbating the underlying health and environmental injustices they already face. By May, the Navajo Nation was quickly recording the highest number of Covid-19 cases per capita in the country, surpassing the number in New York and New Jersey. Despite the devastating health emergency, Republican officials have done little to prevent the virus from spreading. Not only has the Trump administration cut funding for indigenous communities, it has also lacked guidelines for mask mandates, business closings and translations for Covid-19 resources. And when the federal stimulus package was rolled out nationwide, finances were slow to arrive in tribal nations.
"There has been a lot of distrust of government, especially contracts and funding. Every time we get a budget, it is cut," Benally said. "When nations expect funding from the federal government, it is very little and it doesn't go very far . "
Native Americans continue to enjoy a long history of neglect and abuse. These unjust legacies have impacted access to health services, education, affordability of water and other critical resources. When Biden and his colleague Kamala Harris released a comprehensive plan for tribal nations in October that highlighted strengthening relations between nations and eliminating health inequalities, indigenous communities received a glimmer of hope.
Jade Begay, a member of the Diné and Tesuque Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and creative director of NDN Collective, an organization devoted to building indigenous power, said she was encouraged by the first two items in Biden's plan, which reflect the current tribal crises Nations face including growing distrust of the federal government as well as the pandemic that has weighed on health care in indigenous communities.
"But in the years to come," she added, "it would be great to see elected officials and the Democratic Party, if they continue to win the Indian country, make investments to remove barriers to electoral repression and make voting more accessible to ours. " Communities to invest in roads and all those things that make travel easier to cast a vote. "
As with most marginalized communities across the country, voter repression and accessibility issues are widespread in tribal nations. For example, unjust postal services make it difficult for Native Americans in tribal countries to vote. Scottsdale, Arizona, a city covering approximately 184 square miles, has 12 post offices compared to 26 post offices in the entire Navajo nation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles. The Indian community of Salt River Pima-Maricopa has zero.
In addition to Biden's victory in Arizona, Begay said indigenous communities played a vital role in helping Mark Kelly move a Senate seat to the Democrats. Kelly spent campaign funds to actively reach out to the Navajo nation and run ads in the Diné language to help overcome communication barriers. "This type of contact is really important and shows how careful and thoughtful language gaps are," she said.
This year's election broke records as well Presentation: Three of 18 Native Americans Women running for office won seats in Congress – Democrats Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Kansas, were both re-elected for a second term during the Republican Yvette Herrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation in New Mexico, defeated the Democratic incumbent – the highest number in a single election cycle. Native American women make up about 1.1 percent of the US population, but have historically been underrepresented in Congress. Both Begay and Benally underscored the importance of this shift, especially given the longstanding patriarchal structure in indigenous communities.
"At this point in time, representation is really going to enhance women's voices as women, as mothers, and as parents," said Benally. “For many decades it has only been male leadership. It was always one-sided. In Navajo, men turn to their wives to find out what needs to happen on a daily basis because the women took care of the house, the children, and all the men did was gather around and hunt. It hasn't happened in that long here at the federal government, and now that it is happening, indigenous women are really going to make a difference for the people. "
But even if the Native Americans overwhelmingly support a Biden-Harris government, organizers say the job is not done. From shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline, to protecting Indigenous women and girls, to demilitarizing the U.S.-Mexico border that crosses the tribal land, Begay said there are still a number of issues that Native Americans face want to hold a new government accountable.
"With women in office, they know what it means to look after a family around the clock," she said. “Having that kind of leader in these offices makes a lot of sense for dealing with a pandemic, dealing with climate change, all these things that affect our families' livelihoods – how we have access to food, how we access our basic needs access – and so it will be really important to have that type of guidance. "
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