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100 years after citizenship, Indigenous peoples continue to fight to vote

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100 years after citizenship, Indigenous peoples continue to fight to vote

Jun 06, 2024 | 10:15 am ET
By Shondiin Silversmith
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100 years after citizenship, Indigenous peoples continue to fight to vote
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Elsie Werito, 84, a member of the To'hajiilee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, waits in line to cast her ballot on Nov. 2, 2004. Werito said she has been voting all her life and has never missed an election. Photo by Rick Scibelli | Getty Images

It has been 100 years since the federal government granted citizenship to all Indigenous people born in the U.S. as part of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. 

But, even after gaining citizenship, Indigenous people were not even provided what many consider a fundamental right of citizenship: the right to vote.

“Here in Arizona, Natives had to sue for the right to vote,” Indivisible Tohono Co-Founder April Ignacio said. “Regardless of these acts that get passed, there are still people who are perpetuating the suppression against tribal and rural communities.”

Ignacio said people recognizing 100 years of the Indian Citizenship Act — June 2 marked a century since it became law — is the least they can do because the system was not set up or designed for Indigenous peoples. 

“We still exist,” Ignacio said.

Before the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Native American Rights Fund attorney Allison Neswood said there were two main ways an Indigenous person could become a citizen: enlistment and land allotment. 

Through the Dawes Act of 1887, every Indigenous person who received an allotment of land, voluntarily took up residence there and had “adopted habits of civilized life” — that is, lived separate and apart from the tribe — was declared to be a citizen of the United States.

A few tribes had citizenship included in their treaty rights, Neswood said, and others worked with the state to earn citizenship, but no federal law included Indigenous people as citizens.

Thousands of Indigenous people served in World War I, but when they returned home, they were not considered citizens in the country they fought for.

“It was really embarrassing for the United States at the time to have Native American veterans coming back and not even being citizens,” Neswood said.

It was not until the United States passed the Citizenship Act of 1919 that all Indigenous World War I veterans were granted citizenship.

And it would be five more years before President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which gave citizenship to “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.” 

Ignacio said the Indian Citizenship Act was the beginning of the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples because, before that, their policies focused on taking land and extermination.

“We were the first people of this land, and even now, as the first people of this land, it’s still these governments who are trying to strip the means of equity and equality,” Ignacio said, adding that it is carried out when roundabout policies get implemented to “hurt the people who have always lived here.”

Even though Indigenous people were the first peoples of this country, they were the last to receive citizenship.

“The Indian Citizenship Act was the first time that Native Americans had birthright citizenship like any other person born in the United States,” Neswood said. 

And it was the first time that Indigenous people did not have to meet Westernized standards to be citizens. 

“They could still be full members of their tribe and still live on trust land,” she said, adding that Indigenous people got to be citizens of both their tribes and the United States.

You're casting your ballot with your ancestors and all the people who fought for our right to be here in mind.

– Jaynie Parrish, Arizona Native Vote executive director

However, not all tribes considered the Indian Citizenship Act a good thing. Neswood said that many tribal nations felt differently about it because it was not negotiated between the federal government and tribes. 

She said that some tribes disclaimed U.S. citizenship as a colonial act, fearing that it would undermine the citizenship of sovereign tribal nations. 

The pushback from tribes was justified, Neswood said, because even though the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, it did not come with the core rights of citizenship for all Indigenous peoples, including the right to vote.

“That right wasn’t even recognized in many states with large Native populations until the late 1940s and even into the 1950s,” Neswood said. 

“I think unilateral conferral of citizenship without the core rights of citizenship really looked and smelled like a colonial act on behalf of the United States,” she added.

Neswood said in the decades following the Indian Citizenship Act, a lot of states with large Indigenous populations, especially in the southwest, have often pushed and implemented outright prohibitions on Native voting. 

Some of those policies include not allowing Indigenous people to vote until they “completely disclaimed their tribal citizenship and identity,” she added.

It would take decades of advocacy from Indigenous communities and, at times, the power of the legal system to guarantee Indigenous people had the right to vote. 

“It is so layered in how politics affects our everyday lives,” Ignacio said.

So, when discussion of the Indian Citizenship Act comes up, Ignacio said it is important for people to remember the larger picture: that it was a policy based on suppressing a marginalized group of people because it still left the states to govern who was eligible to vote.

Native Voting Barriers Established in Arizona

Arizona is a prime example of how Indigenous communities have had to fight for their voting rights for decades. That fight began in November 1924, when two Indigenous men were trying to utilize their newly gained right to vote in Pinal County.

Gila River Indian Community citizens Peter Porter and Rudolf Johnson were turned away from registering to vote by the Pinal County recorder because they lived on tribal land and were not subject to state law.

Porter and Johnson sued in November 1924, advocating for Indigenous people in Arizona to have the right to vote in state elections. 

Their attempt failed when the Arizona Supreme Court determined that, although Indigenous people of tribal nations in Arizona were state residents, they could not vote because they were considered under federal guardianship.

Neswood said that Arizona’s state law indicated that the federal trust relationship between Indigenous people and the United States government qualified as guardianship status and, thus, made them incompetent to vote.

Indigenous people in Arizona did not have the right to vote for more than two decades before the law was rechallenged.

In 1948, Fort McDowell Yavapai tribal members and World War II veterans Frank Harrison and Harry Austin tried to cast their votes in state elections with the goal of voting for Arizona leaders who would support their efforts to provide for senior citizens and families, but the Maricopa County recorder turned them away. 

Harrison and Austin soon filed a lawsuit to overturn the Arizona Supreme Court’s 1924 decision. On July 15, 1948, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of Harrison and Austin. 

“In a democracy, suffrage is the most basic civil right since its exercise is the chief means whereby other rights may be safeguarded,” Arizona Supreme Court Justice Levi Udall wrote in the opinion that established Indigenous people’s right to vote in the state.

“To deny the right to vote, where one is legally entitled to do so, is to do violence to the principles of freedom and equality,” Udall wrote.

Indigenous people in Arizona fully gained the right to vote as a result.

If we don't do politics, politics does us.

– April Ignacio, Indivisible Tohono

Indigenous people are among the fastest-growing populations in the United States, according to the Native American Rights Fund, but they are still subjected to voter suppression tactics that prevent their full political participation. 

In a Native American Rights Fund report on the barriers Indigenous voters face throughout the U.S., researchers identified 11 significant factors that contribute to these barriers. 

The barriers identified are geographical isolation, physical and natural barriers, poorly maintained or non-existent roads, distance and limited hours of government offices, technological barriers and the digital divide, low levels of educational attainment, depressed socio-economic conditions, homelessness and housing insecurity, non-traditional mailing addresses such as post office boxes, lack of funding for elections and discrimination.

“Like all other Americans, Native people have important rights at stake,” Neswood said. “During our elections, we have important interests at stake.”

Neswood said the right to vote gave Indigenous people the right to be heard on their homelands, to elect representatives for their communities, and to make decisions about their resources and future. 

“(Voting is) one tool in the toolbox to defend our rights,” she said. “We deserve a say as Native people and voting and citizenship is one of those ways that we exercise our power to have a say.”

Voting barriers have continued to impact Indigenous communities across Arizona. The most recent cases include the Pascua Yaqui Tribe suing the Pima County Recorder in 2020 and Native youth from the Tohono O’odham Nation suing the state in 2022.

“These are deliberate attempts to ensure that the voiceless (and) underrepresented are not represented,” Ignacio said. “If we don’t do politics, politics does us.”

Grassroots Efforts Provide Voting Resources for Indigenous Communities

It is not uncommon for Indigenous people to lead voter registration and education efforts within their communities because state and federal officials often invest little to no resources into voting education for Indigenous communities.

“In Arizona alone, I can only think of maybe one handful of grassroots community organizers who are actively registering people to vote all year round,” Ignacio said, noting that her group, Indivisible Tohono, is among them.

Ignacio said it’s important to include Indigenous people in political spaces because Native votes do have the power of a swing vote, especially when it comes to Native voters residing on the Tohono O’odham and Navajo Nation.

Ignacio said people need to recognize that those two tribal nations hold the largest geographical tribal land bases in the United States, and that means something.

Providing dependable information about the policies that impact the Tohono O’odham Nation is the work that Iganico does with Indivisible Tohono. 

Ignacio said that it’s important to have Native representation in political spaces because, if Indigenous people do not have people championing for them, they will get lost.

“All of these things were done to us without our permission and our knowledge,” she added. “So, I think having Native representation only helps the future quality of life that others are already assured.”

Ignacio has been involved in community organizing since she was a teenager. In 2017, she co-founded Indivisible Tohono with her friends, helping it grow into a prominent grassroots organization. 

Ignacio is running for Pima Country Supervisor District 3, and she is the only Indigenous candidate in the race. 

Throughout her campaign, Ignacio said she has been asked why she invests so much time and effort in Indigenous communities, even though a large portion of the district covers the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“Rural and tribal communities are constantly fighting for resources that are not afforded to them but are provided in populous areas,” Ignacio said. 

She added that it could be providing small things like art programs or a public library, but it is often things that people who live in larger populated areas take for granted, such as broadband, running water and plumbing.

“My larger view of it is that, when rural and tribal communities are thriving, everybody thrives, because there isn’t this tug for resources,” Ignacio said.

Some Native-led grassroots organizations in Arizona include Indivisible Tohono, Arizona Native Vote and the Northeast Arizona Native Democrats. These organizations have people on the ground in Indigenous communities who provide resources. 

“These community-led organizations and community leaders understand the barriers that their neighbors and community members are facing,” Neswood said.

Arizona Native Vote Executive Director Jaynie Parrish had worked to provide voter education within Indigenous communities across Arizona for over a decade before launching her grassroots organization in 2023.

Parrish said she sees the centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act as a marker because there is still a lot of work to do for Indigenous peoples to maintain their rights.

Parrish and her team work year-round to provide voter resources to Indigenous communities across Arizona. She said that voting is one way to have more influence and representation on the local, state and federal policies that impact Indigenous peoples.

Parrish said that it is understandable many Indigenous people are hesitant to vote, but she likes how one of her team members describes the act of voting as casting a ballot. 

“You’re casting your ballot with your ancestors and all the people who fought for our right to be here in mind,” she said, adding that it’s important to have conversations with community members so they can fully understand the election process and what’s at stake.

Parrish said her on-the-ground team spends time in Indigenous communities, setting up at local markets or even on the side of the road to provide resources and engage in conversation with community members.

“There’s not necessarily an easy answer all the time,” she said, but she added that she hopes Indigenous voters do understand how Native people come from a long line of warriors and people who fought for them to continue living. 

Even 100 years after the Indian Citizenship Act passed, Parrish said Indigenous peoples continue to fight against the laws and policies that continue to make it harder for their communities to take part in the political system to vote fairly and equally. 

“Remain vigilant (and) pay attention,” she added. “Don’t sit this out, because a no vote is also a choice.”