American Indians Still Face Voter Discrimination!
Center For Civic Participation
MARY CLARE JALONICK
LAKE ANDES, S.D. - When Charon Asetoyer went to vote a few years ago, she was met with unfriendly words and an offensive gesture. A white man, apparently unhappy with the idea of an American Indian walking into the polls, asked her in vulgar terms what she was doing there.
She told him she was there because she had a right to vote and went back to her car to wait for him to leave. Only when he sped away did she walk inside.
Discrimination against Indians is commonplace here, she says. And nowhere is that more evident than in the polling booth.
Asetoyer, an American Indian who lives on the Yankton Sioux IndianReservation in the quiet flatlands of southeastern South Dakota, compares her home to the South in the 1960s. "It's outright racism," she says.
Many on this reservation say that kind of behavior is normal in Charles MixCounty, a poor, rural section of South Dakota farm country where AmericanIndians make up around one-third of the population. Asetoyer, a quietly determined activist who moved here from California years ago, calls it a land-based struggle, where many of the conflicts are "border issues."
The problem is not limited to South Dakota. As Congress looks to reauthorize parts of the Voting Rights Act, many American Indians say they aren't satisfied with federal and state protections of their voting rights. While the landmark law has brought them a long way from the day when some stat governments required they be "civilized" to cast ballots, they say they still suffer from intimidation, restrictive voting requirements and long distances to polling places.
"There's no question that there still is some subtle discouragement," says former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of Colorado's Northern Cheyenne Tribe. "We've come a long way but we have a long way to go."
A year away from reauthorization - parts of the Voting Rights Act are set to expire in 2007 - members of Congress are keeping quiet about possible changes to the law. But tribes expect changes, and they worry that could reverse a growing electoral clout among many Indian nations in their states.
Recent successes for American Indian voters include the 2002 Senate election in South Dakota, when Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson barely won re-election with 524 votes and a huge increase in turnout on reservations. In WashingtonState, a surge of Indian votes had a major effect on Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell's narrow win in 2000. In Arizona, reservations helped seat Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2002.
Despite these achievements, tribes point to restrictive voting laws around the country. South Dakota's new voter identification law - passed after Johnson's election - requires residents to show photo identification at the polls, a problem for many on the reservations who don't have IDs. The law permits those without identification to sign an affidavit, but opponent argue there is confusion about what is allowed. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged other voter identification statutes seen as restrictive to Indians in Albuquerque, N.M. and Minnesota.
"The tribes are still very concerned about the targeted efforts to disenfranchise their vote," says Jacqueline Johnson, executive director ofthe National Congress of American Indians. "We are having to change a mind-set that exists."
Others imply the problems are exaggerated. Chris Nelson, South Dakota's Republican secretary of state, focuses on the positive - a huge differential in American Indian turnout between 2000 and 2004, after two major Senate races - and says he has seen little evidence of voter intimidation.
Nelson says he is even willing to support removing some federal protections on South Dakota's reservations. Shannon and Todd Counties - historically home to the state's largest population of American Indians - are included in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, meaning that any major changes in election policy there must be federally approved.
Nelson says that thousands of local decisions have gone through the Justice Department without being rejected. The state is working to ensure that the Indian vote is protected, he says, lessening the need for federal help. "Has the preclearance requirement done anything to improve the ability of Indians to vote in those counties? The answer is no," Nelson says.
He says the increase in turnout has nothing to do with federal law, but with interest in particular elections and strong get-out-the-vote efforts in the state.
Former Sen. Campbell disagrees . "If those federal protections weren't there, Indians wouldn't have a chance at voting," he says. "The law probably ought to go farther."
American Indians in Washington and on the reservations are reluctant to say what exactly they would like to change about the Voting Rights Act, as there isn't much consensus on the issue yet. Some suggest adding counties with increased federal protections, instead of removing them, and expanding a section of the law that allows bilingual assistance in polling stations. Other suggest a larger number of polling places, more American Indian pollwatchers and more general oversight on Election Day.
One thing they all agree on is that current protections need to be retained. "There are going to be some changes and we really need to watch what those changes are," said Robert Cournoyer, chairman of the Yankton Sioux.
South Dakota Sen. Johnson says that Congress will have to maintain some protections to keep American Indians' trust in the system - and voting levels high.
"There's still a lack of trust and confidence between Native Americans and state institutions, and keeping some federal oversight is something that Native Americans want to have," he said. "Its presence contributes to ahigher confidence level."
If current trends continue, say some on the Yankton reservation, AmericanIndians could start to have more of a say about what happens in Washington. As their numbers have swelled at the ballot box, Indian activists say the age-old perception that votes don't count on reservations is slowly dissipating.
Oliver Semans, an American Indian who has organized several South Dakota get-out-the-vote campaigns, says he has tried to boost participation by equating low voting levels with high poverty levels. This has worked to some extent, he says."You give us 20 years, we'll have our country back," says Semans.
American Indians in Charles Mix County appear slightly less confident, as tensions have escalated in recent years.
The county received national attention during the 2004 election, when the state ousted Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in favor of Republican Sen. John Thune. The night before Election Day, Daschle's campaign asked for a temporary restraining order against Republican poll watchers who were allegedly intimidating Indian voters. A judge granted the order for CharlesMix County, a ruling Republicans charge was purely politics.
This year, a group of people in the county are quietly circulating a petition to divide the county, separating the reservation from the whiter areas. Petition sponsors have not publicly identified themselves, but Asetoyer and others speculate it's intended to keep American Indians off the county commission.
Sharon Drapeau, a native of the Yankton reservation who narrowly lost a race for the county commission, says it may get worse for Indian country before it gets better as tensions rise. "You have to get that scab off and let it bleed to clean it," she said.
C 2006 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
NAJA Encourages Free Press At Fort Peck
For Immediate ReleaseMarch 30, 2006
VERMILLION, S.D. _The Native American Journalists Association expresses grave concerns about the dismissal this week of Bonnie Red Elk, the editor of Wotanin Wowapi, the tribally owned newspaper on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
John Morales, the chairman of the Fort Peck tribes in Montana, has said he's unhappy with some of the coverage in the newspaper. But reservation newspapers need the freedom to cover issues important to their community, regardless of whether those papers are tribally owned and operated, NAJA President Mike Kellogg (Navajo) said.
"Despite the claims by some tribal governments, free press protection should apply to all," Kellogg said. "A free and open press benefits all, including tribal governments. In fact, the more topics are debated and leaders questioned, more progress will be made. In the end, the abuse of the press by government officials indicates there is something to report."
Created in 1984, NAJA works to support a free press throughout Indian Country. NAJA encourages Fort Peck officials to reconsider the issue in a way that protects the freedom of the press and preserves the integrity of tribal media.
Although Red Elk (Sioux/Assiniboine) said she was surprised by the firing, she has decided to start an independent newspaper on the reservation, the Fort Peck Journal.
"We've always talked about this but now we're being forced into," she said. "But it's time for Fort Peck to get a new independent voice and not tied to the tribe in anyway."Red Elk said volunteers have already started working on the Journal, which will published soon.
Mike Kellogg, NAJA Board President
Kim Baca, Interm Executive Director
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