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Inviting the Wolf into the Hen House: Tribal Citizens and American Elections

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The conventional philosophy behind voting is clear. Through the collective action of casting ballots with equal value—one person, one vote—citizens elect a government committed to their welfare.

But in our reality, the conventional philosophy is skewed. A single vote seems to matter more where populations are small, communication limited, and facts stubborn. Push population into the hundreds of millions, saturate those millions with communications outlets, and load up on anywhere from four to seven PR specialists per reporter of facts—and suddenly your vote begins to seem more like an act of faith than direct action.

For Indigenous people accepting of dual citizenship, with one foot in the boat and the other in the canoe, all that comes with complications. In tribal nation elections, “one person one vote” still stands for direct action; we can cast a vote with every confidence that our part in collective action matters.

But before voting in U.S. elections, how unconscious, or deluded would one have to be not to ask ourselves whether a U.S. government can ever be honestly committed to our Indigenous welfare?

Secondly, is that where our faith belongs anyway? And finally, given our small number in relation to all voters, will our votes really affect off-reservation outcomes, or would that job be better left to money and lobbying and the recruiting and management of voting allies?

The answers will be varied and they will vary with individuals. But two guidelines should be considered for Indian voters. Tribes survive in America for two reasons above all others: their territorial sovereignty and the concern of tribal citizens for one another. If voting in American elections compromises either, our ballots should be cast in tribal nation elections only.

What we need, then, is a sure guide to knowing when a vote in American elections would weaken territorial sovereignty and our concern for one another. And each of us can be our own guide based on some pretty basic observations.

For one thing, is your tribe’s territorial sovereignty under direct threat from off-reservation politicians or national party-supported tribal opposition groups? If so, at the very least, you should strategize against that direct threat. Obvious as it seems, it can’t be said too often: territorial sovereignty, our authority to live under our own laws on our own lands, has been the only safe harbor for tribes. Supporting territorial sovereignty where it is directly threatened in American elections is a reasonable duty of tribal citizens.

Of course, tribal governments may organize a tribal response; in that case the duty may be fulfilled in other ways.

And then there is our duty toward one another. If you can look around yourself and see that your fellow Indian citizens truly do depend on the American federal government for many of the essentials in life, you may owe it to them to cast a ballot in American elections. If not, or if it seems that an unnecessary or dwindling dependency hangs on from force of habit, why play into its hands by participating in American elections? It would be much better, in those circumstances, to stake out some high ground and strengthen your tribal community at its own ballot box.

Beyond those guidelines—a direct threat to territorial sovereignty or a true dependency on federal resources—we should recognize that voting in American elections undermines tribal standing in the most basic way: Non-Indian Americans must surely come to wonder why tribal citizens can vote in American elections when non-Indian Americans can’t vote in tribal elections? It’s a question we can rebuff at law thanks to our dual citizenship. But to put ourselves in that position would be to risk the citizenship that matters most.

Given the millions of customers our retail businesses, hotels and casinos cater to why have we not figured out a way to guide them to vote in our stead?

The time is right to anticipate the court of public opinion. Except on the narrow grounds of direct threats to territorial sovereignty and genuine dependency on federal resources, tribal citizens should refrain from voting in American elections. Elect to take on a strategy that leads to putting both of your feet in your canoe. And consider other strategic actions that would support and contribute to the success of your American political (candidate) ally.