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No Need for Post-Partisan Blues in Indian Country

There's a little something for every voter in this post-election, chad-withdrawal season.

Republicans can rejoice that theirs is the party of the 43rd President of the United States and of the leadership of the 107th Congress.

President-elect George W. Bush hopes that women and people of color take heart from his earliest picks for top advisers: two women, two African-Americans and one Hispanic (even though the five include two-fers and total only four persons).

Democrats can take comfort in the knowledge that a half-million more voters went for their candidate than for the victor. They can be happy, if not content, with the 50-50 split in the Senate and with their House minority status by a scant ten members (221-R, 211-D, 2-I, 1-vacant).

Maybe I'm just talking to the wrong crowd, but I only know three Indians who are registered Independents (they sat this one out) and two who actually voted Green. They and the other parties can find solace in the landscape of the state legislatures, where the major parties run 17 each, but 15 are under mixed control or on a non-partisan system.

The national election distributed power so evenly it could be said that no party is really in charge, although the 3,000-plus Dems currently in patronage jobs in Washington, D.C., would have a good argument to the contrary.

One thing Native Peoples can feel good about is that voting is not a big problem in Indian country, where every vote is counted and really does count. In some tribal elections, votes are still cast by standing up.

In most Native cultures, it is a traditional religious tenet, not simply a political notion, to listen to every voice of Creation. A lot of our ancestors refined democracy over a very long time -- certainly longer than any non-Natives have been in our countries ? and got it right.

The right of one-person/one-vote was observed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution in Native national elections, not in any European or colonial system. They viewed it as so precious, idealistic and unattainable that it took over a century for the white male property-owners to share the franchise with other Americans.

In the meantime, the new Americans and Canadians waged war against Native political and societal systems, with particularly devastating results in the 95% of nations in North America that are traditionally matrilineal. The foreigners undermined Native governance structures that were organized along gender and age lines, disenfranchising Native women, children and elders. Property decisions made solely by Native men, mostly young warriors, were even written into many federal-tribal treaties.

In 1919, after the biggest of the land-grabs were concluded, Congress authorized U.S. citizenship and the vote to any Indian veteran of World War I who requested them. Five years later, by a 1924 congressional act, all other Indians were accorded dual citizenship and voting privileges, although it took 50 years for every state to permit Native voting.

Native American voter turnout in most tribal elections has ranged between 75% and 95% since the 1960s. By contrast, national voter participation rarely hits the 50% level and did not do so in November 2000.

This year, Native voters turned out in high numbers for tribal, federal and local elections. No one I talked with during the weeks that Florida held the country hostage knew of a single Native person who had trouble casting a vote for the person intended. But, then, there were no political telemarketers calling up late at night, a la Palm Beach, to suggest a problem with butterflies in the ballot box.

Native voters in Montana turned out in sufficient numbers to double the number of Native people in the state legislature, from three to a half-dozen. They are Sen. Gerald Pease (Crow) and Reps. Norman Bixby (Cheyenne), Bill Eggers, Jr. (Crow), Joey Jayne (Navajo), Carol Juneau (Blackfeet) and Frank Smith (Assiniboine/Sioux).

Lawyer Brad Carson (Cherokee) was elected to the U.S. House by voters in Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District, which also is home of the Cherokee Nation and lots of Indian voters.

All seven of these new and returning Native lawmakers are Democrats, who were elected in states that went for Bush by upward of 60%.

In the election that Native people nationally viewed as critical, Native voters in Washington broke overwhelmingly against Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and provided the margin of victory for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

Of the more than 550 tribal governments that held elections, most went off without a hitch. A handful are being decided by recounts, revotes or courts. That sort of thing used to be referred to by some non-Indian wags as an example of the deep divisions in tribal politics.

With the experience of Election 2000, there should be far less of that kind of talk in the future.