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It’s time to recognize the forgotten Americans who helped elect Joe Biden

Indigenous and Native American voters played a key role in Biden’s narrow margins in swing states

OJ Semans, the co-director of a Native American voter advocacy group, in the post office in Mission, S.D., on Aug. 6. (Stephen Groves/AP)

On election night, CNN used an on-air graphic that listed voters by the following categories: White, Black, Latino, Asian and Something Else. That “something else” referred to Native and Indigenous Americans, many of whom took to social media to express their ire at the classification. The CNN graphic exemplified the continued erasure of Native and Indigenous Americans from political conversations, made all the more galling by analysis showing this group’s impact on the election.

In an election where a record-breaking six — yes, six — Native American and Native Hawaiian candidates were elected to Congress, and where Native voters in states like Arizona and Wisconsin may have helped tip the scales in President-elect Joe Biden’s favor, it’s critical Americans recognize the long history of the battles over Native citizenship, suffrage and representation. While this may not paint the rosiest picture of American democracy, it highlights the power of the Native vote — and what it took to get here.

Federal Indian policy, and the relation between Native nations and the U.S. government, is marked by contradiction. In the 1831 Supreme Court decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall claimed the relationship between Native nations and the federal government “resembles that of a ‘ward to its guardian.’” A year later, though, in Worcester v. Georgia, Marshall declared the Cherokee Nation was a sovereign nation, and the state of Georgia had no right to enforce state laws on Cherokee land.

Most forget Chief Justice Roger Taney’s 1857 infamous opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford also argued “it had been found necessary,” for the sake of Native nations, “to regard them in a state of pupilage, and to legislate to a certain extent over them and the territory they occupy.” At the same time, though, Taney ruled that, like subjects of any other foreign government, there was a theoretical path to naturalization for Native people — but he made no mention of potential suffrage.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 — passed after the Fourteenth Amendment — reiterated the purposeful exclusion of Native people from citizenship and voting. Less than two months later, Sen. Jacob Howard (R-Mich.) declared he was “not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame … are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me.”

In 1880, John Elk, a Native man who had been born on a reservation but later moved to Omaha, tried to register to vote. A city registrar, however, refused to accept his registration and the case would up in the Supreme Court. In 1884, the Court ruled in Elk v. Wilkins that, even though Elk had “severed his tribal relation to the Indian tribes, and fully and completely surrendered himself to the jurisdiction of the United States,” he could not be considered a citizen because Elk owed “immediate allegiance” to his tribe, not the United States.

This ruling was part of a perverse push to make Native Americans citizens — while depriving them of the right to vote. In his 1886 annual address, President Grover Cleveland pushed for a “more rapid transition from tribal organization to citizenship.” In an era when federal Indian policy hinged on assimilation, citizenship was a means to accelerate the impact of legislation like the 1887 General Allotment Act, which Teddy Roosevelt called “a mighty pulverizing machine intended to break up the tribal mass.” But the combination of citizenship — without the right to vote — deprived Native Americans of political power and inclusion in American politics.

This was something Indigenous women understood as they joined the fight for women’s suffrage. As historian Cathleen D. Cahill shows, women like Turtle Mountain’s Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Laura Cornelius Kellogg (a Wisconsin Oneida author and activist) and Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (a Yankton Dakota activist who wrote under the pen name Zitkala-Ša) argued women and Native people should have the right to vote. The intersectional experiences of these Indigenous women were key to their fight for the vote.

By the early 1920s, two-thirds of American Indians had been granted U.S. citizenship, most notably through assimilationist policies like the General Allotment Act, and the 1919 American Indian Citizenship Act, which allowed Native veterans of World War I to apply for citizenship. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act (ICA), also known as the Snyder Act, which granted all Indigenous people residing in the U.S. citizenship, provided it “shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.”

Yet, the law was far less positive than it sounded. Its main purpose was to break tribal bonds and political structures to assimilate Indigenous people into the American nation-state.

It left questions as to whether the law overrode tribal citizenship or made American Indians citizens of both their individual nations and of the United States. It also imposed citizenship on Indigenous people who did not wish to become American citizens. Most importantly, it made Native Americans second-class citizens because it did not provide suffrage. Voting rights were the purview of the state, with limits placed upon them by the 15th and 19th Amendments.

In his 2011 memoir, Navajo code talker Chester Nez relayed the story of how, on his way home from serving overseas in World War II, he stopped at the federal building in Gallup, N.M., to get his identification card. Dressed in his impeccable Marine uniform, Nez encountered a man he called “a civilian paper-pusher” who told him, “You’re not a full citizen of the United States, you know. … You can’t even vote.” Utah was the last state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native and Indigenous Americans, and that didn’t happen until 1962.

Native and Indigenous voters still face deliberately created obstacles when it comes to attempting to exercise their right to vote. After Native voters in North Dakota helped elect Democrat Heidi Heitkamp to the Senate in 2012, the Republican-controlled legislature began requiring voters have IDs with a residential mailing address instead of a P.O. box. Many tribal citizens had P.O. boxes instead of formal mailing addresses, and the legislature’s actions were a clear attempt at disenfranchisement.

In 2020, Native leaders and Native-led organizations campaigned across the country to encourage voter registration and turnout, while recognizing the numerous barriers to voting recently outlined by the Native American Rights Fund. In a now-viral tweet posted on Friday, Len Necefer noted that 76,000 citizens of the Navajo Nation had cast a ballot in the 2020 election — an 89 percent voter turnout.

this vote may well have played an outsized role in Biden’s narrow victory in crucial states like Wisconsin and Arizona. In Wisconsin, which seems to have had a larger Native voter turnout in 2020 than in 2016, the Red Cliff and Bad River Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Menomini Tribe and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mahicans were among those who helped turn Wisconsin blue. Even in states like Montana and South Dakota, which both went red, counties that overlapped reservation lands saw significant Native voter turnout.

These results demonstrate how crucial it is to understand and recognize the Native and Indigenous vote as a distinct category if we want to understand American politics. It’s also crucial to eliminate the obstacles continuing to plague Native and Indigenous voters. In an election where Navajo activist Allie Young called on her fellow Navajo voters to ride their horses to the polls — and when Natives across the country still face countless obstacles when it comes to casting their vote — Native voters are transforming American politics.