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A party of choice: voting by American Indians

Voting in the United States for Indian people is a paradox. No other right in the American legal system is more symbolic of a Native person's "inclusion" into the political body of the United States of America. But that's the source of the paradox: as members of Indian tribes, we owe our allegiance first to our tribes, our clans, our societies, our relatives, our friends and our ancestors. You can be certain that our ancestors would be wondering about our newly-claimed allegiance to America.

The drafters of the U.S. Constitution never contemplated including us in the newly formed Union. We were always intended to be "outside" in a political sense even though we were "inside" in a geographical sense. And even when the Nation reunified at the end of the Civil War, when the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution were adopted, the latter making "persons" born within the States into citizens, there was no intent to make Indians into citizens.

Our path to citizenship was opened in part by the bravery of young Indian men and women who filed off to war during the First World War. They were aided by a growing movement of non-Indian political activists, emerging anthropologists and wealthy "do-gooders" who felt that the right to vote was the only appropriate reward for service and heroism. But that was merely a revised form of assimilationist theory, whereby "inclusion" took the place of "assimilation" as an imperial term of art. The Congress of 1924 was convinced of the merits of the liberal argument and so they passed the Citizenship Act: we became citizens of the United States.

The "Indian Citizenship Act," as we came to call it, was not passed upon any sound legal basis. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution granted to Congress the power to annex the souls of Native peoples. Contrary to the popular American philosophy of "government by consent," the U.S. brought us in without any effort to gain our consent.

The 20th century history of Federal-Indian relations, however, has manufactured that consent. It has done so in legal, cultural and social ways. After 1934, for instance, as hundreds of Tribes were offered the option to reorganize as constitutional governments under the Indian Reorganization Act, many did so by adopting a boilerplate document that vowed to uphold U.S. laws and committed tribal actions to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. Our children have been schooled in State or BIA schools and taught a history that purposefully omitted the true history of our loss of lands and independence. We've been made to believe that every affront to the United States is an insult to Native America, meriting even a military response.

And even though we had a right to vote, at least on federal paper, as we learned in the Bush v. Gore case, it was still up to the states to determine the particulars about elections. Indians were kept from the polls by one means or another. It wasn't until the Indian veterans of World War II challenged state elections law that the right to vote took on any meaning. Thirty years after the vote was granted, Native peoples finally made actual political choices, in theory, at least.

Over the past several decades it has become almost customary for Native peoples to select membership in the Democratic Party. It has been as difficult to find an Indian Republican as it is to find an Indian vegetarian. When one appears, he or she makes pretenses at bravery or innovation while supporting nothing more than a xenophobic American conservatism. Tribal leaders endorse candidates in hopes of creating a block vote only to offend the pseudo-independent tribal voter. Most Indian voters do not vote at all. Ironically, the freedom of choice created by the right to vote has not been exercised wisely. What good is choice if one either does not vote or does not demand the highest standard in candidates or parties?

But back to the paradox: What party or candidate is actually on the side of Native peoples? The Democratic and Republican Parties are like a pair of twins who argue between themselves about their differences. The two-party system itself has no grounding in the U.S. Constitution either. Both of the major parties serve the interests of wealth, corporate expansion and a kind of globalism that eats up tribal peoples. Neither party has ever offered a principled political solution to our desires for independence and cultural integrity.

At heart, whether we like it or not, politically we are "Tribalists" and the clothing of American politics rarely, if ever, fits us well. The urges toward "self-determination" and "sovereignty" do not conform to Democratic or Republican visions of their America. So when our leaders do get consolation from the parties, it isn't because the parties have evolved philosophically, it's because in the opportunism to prevail over the errant twin party, they see Native votes as up for grabs ? it's mere political greed. And all too often, the Natives who endorse the parties are engaged in the same sort of opportunism: we learn all too well sometimes.

This is not to say that the Green, the Libertarian, the Socialist or the Communist Parties are any different. Every party wants to reconfigure the United States as a Nation-State built by their standards, but none of them have transcended the limitations of Western political philosophies that recognize no political place for tribal thinking. They do not truly appreciate cultural diversity, linguistic survival, repatriation, sovereignty, self-determination, tribal religious freedom, and the many other interests that are the distinguishing characteristics of the "Tribalist" political agenda.

Maybe some of us are veterans, and maybe some of us are modern warriors of a different kind, but it appears that we must, as previous Native warriors have done, take the right to vote to a different level. Our "Tribalism" should be openly admitted as a political philosophy. Voting ought to be a universal ethic of tribal peoples. Block voting should be openly discussed in general meetings of the tribal membership. Indian scholars and politicians should be engaged in a dialog to define the tolerable limits to the concessions we may make to American party politics or perhaps to demand principled, articulated and tangible concessions of all of the parties of choice.

Judge Carey N. Vicenti, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation of northwest New Mexico, currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He sits as a judicial official for several American Indian nations and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.