Native youth voters express interest in electoral process

WASHINGTON – At campaign rallies, on Internet message boards and in almost every other avenue available for voter participation, young Indians are out in force this year. They have been present for many an election season, no doubt, but some voting experts and educators say their involvement is being felt more now than at any time in history.

“I think we’re seeing our young people realize it is their turn to step up and take action to be sure the Native voice is heard,” said David Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College, adding that many students on his campus have registered to vote and have led or assisted in campaign efforts for various candidates.

“They are not standing in the back of the line, as their parents or grandparents maybe did.”

Gipp’s positive assessment of Native youth participation in the U.S. election process was readily apparent at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, where a bevy of young Indians in their teens, 20s and 30s took on leadership and activist roles. Some worked on the floor of the convention, assisting politicos; others asked probing questions as journalists. A couple participated directly in the delegate voting process.

At one gathering of the Democratic National Committee’s Native caucus during the August event, Layha Spoonhunter, an 18-year-old member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, made sure to raise concerns about how the group’s policies and the Democratic platform in general would reflect the needs of young Indians.

His engagement and willingness to ask questions were part of the reason why he was chosen to become one of two Native Democratic delegates from his home state of Wyoming.

 “I’m here to show the world that young Indian people are engaged and care about the future of our country.” -Shere Wright, 26, Rosebud Sioux Tribe and this year’s Miss Indian Nations

On his Facebook page, Spoonhunter posted a picture of himself with Sen. Barack Obama. As a result of his enthusiasm for the candidate, he even decided to delay his entrance into Montana State University at Billings until the spring so he could work this fall for Obama’s campaign.

Several of Spoonhunter’s young Native friends have written on his page that they are proud of his political activism – and they, too, are excited to participate in presidential and state elections this year.

Shere Wright, 26, Miss Indian Nations, was another young attendee of the Democratic convention. Decked out in her ceremonial dress and sash, several reporters and young people came up to her to ask why she was there.

“I’m here to show the world that young Indian people are engaged and care about the future of our country,” Wright, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said at one point. “Obama has inspired a lot of enthusiasm for many of us.”

Scott Davis, a cultural specialist at UTTC, said that much of the young Indian political engagement he’s observed this year might be accounted for partially by the uniqueness of Obama and his willingness to talk about change and listen to Indian leaders.

But Davis, who works with several Indian college students, said he’s also observed willingness from some youth to learn about Sen. John McCain’s background and work in Indian country.

“You might see more excitement for Democrats this year from our young people, but there are some young Indian Republicans making arguments, too. It’s all part of democracy.”

Despite the excitement, precise numbers on Indian youth voting patterns are not collected on the national level, so it will be all but impossible to compare their overall voting rates this year to past elections.

“[T]here is no current national data on young Native Americans as voters,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The group is one of the top organizations in the nation devoted to studying youth voter participation.

“We have been aware of the lack of data for a long time but have never done anything effective to remedy the problem.”

He said part of the reason for the shortcoming in the data is that most political researchers tend to use the U.S. Census Current Population Survey Voting Supplement as a source of voting data. Sample sizes for young Natives in that data are too small to calculate reliable estimates.

To account for these shortcomings, pollsters would have to develop survey methods that would oversample American Indians, or rely on separate surveys of Indians, perhaps using specialized phone, mailing address or e-mail lists.

“Because of sheer numbers, it will indeed always be easier to track larger minority groups,” Levine said. “The geographical distribution of Native Americans is also a challenge for polling. But this is a problem that could be solved with something on the order of $50,000 per survey.”