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Presidential Race Leaves Few Choices for Native Voters

The time is nigh for the 2016 race for the White House. Prime time contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump are dominating the news cycles while an increasingly weary American electorate remains divided along Democrat and Republican party-lines. Many voters just want it to be over with already. And on some Native American territories, the voter turnout is so paltry as if to say, it is not OUR election. But just maybe, there is a candidate out there to tribal voters. I met someone like that this year while reporting on the campaign trail. More on that a bit later.

Almost one hundred years after the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which purportedly granted U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans, the historically low voter turnout reflects a widespread Native population disbelief in this facet of the American way of life.

My understanding of this dissonance arises from conversations on the subject with notable individuals on the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, such as the outspoken activist Kanietakeron Larry Thompson. His research that he has shown me on the 1924 Act indicates that stringent professional requirements were initially involved in qualifying for said citizenship. The preferred professions included physicians and lawyers, of which there were very few. He also pointed out that certain state laws also barred Natives from voting, despite the pretense of citizenship, persistently. The sponsor of the 1924 Act was New York State Congressman Homer P. Snyder, which Kanietakeron has alleged took place to further dispossess New York-based tribes from historic land claims, such as were documented by New York Assemblyman Edward Everett through his chairmanship of the New York Indian Commission. A 1922 report submitted by the Commission illustrated the tenuous nature of unresolved Indian land title throughout the Empire State. Although the telling report was rejected, Everett’s work may have spurred the political calculations involved in knitting Native citizenship, at least in name if not in practice.

Traditional mindsets and understanding within the influential Iroquois Confederacy also have played a part in the absence of Native voter turnout. The enduring Two-Row Wampum (Kaswentha) that sets a clear demarcation between Native governance and European political processes is represented by a Native canoe and a colonial sailing vessel side by side of each other without interference by either to the other’s way of life. The adage to Native proponents of this historic understanding is to never have a foot in the canoe AND the ship at the same time by one’s own actions, to include voter participation.

My own sense of this history has been padded by my personal coverage of the 2016 campaign. I watch a lot of CNN network news reporting and draw upon my amateur historian’s perspective to help me to see how things have shaped up. Volunteering to report on the 2016 Republican National Convention in my new home city of Cleveland, Ohio was an incredible experience and a highlight of my political journalistic efforts.

During this coverage, I interviewed the fifth-ranked presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan, of the Transhumanist Party. Istvan a former reporter and book author, made an appearance at the Cleveland Public Square to give his campaign a national forum. The Transhumanist platform has sometimes been referred to as the Science Party, whereby technology and humanity are conjoined for the public good. When I asked Istvan how Native American culture (and voters) would be affected by his successful campaign, he did not hesitate to say that unless that culture has been digitized, it would be left behind.

To a person, every activist and delegate that I encountered at the RNC that I queried about implications to Native American culture and voters was met with pregnant pauses and muted answers. A group of young male activists touting a free market capitalist system railed against anyone receiving federal benefits as a drag on the American economy. When I spoke with one member of this group about how many Natives see federal payments as a form of rent for the usage of their homelands, the teenager said he had no idea what I was talking about and he had no basis to draw upon to understand this perspective. His point was clear to me. The thought that treaties somehow traded Native lives for their lands was implicitly understood as just a developmental phase of North American history, and surely not as a veiled criminal act with national implications for modern generations. The idea is unfathomable to those only looking to the future without the political burden of social history.

While the Democrat National Convention was taking place, I made inquiries with the top four ranked presidential campaigns of the 2016 race on what the successful election of their party’s candidate would mean to the Native American culture and tribal voters. Beginning with the Clinton campaign, I received a response within ten minutes of communicating. I was referred to their campaign webpage without a specific area to point towards. I looked over the page to no avail. There was literally nothing there mentioning Native Americans then, and the campaign issues page still has no tab on the subject.

That was the high point of my outreach response. No other campaign even bothered to acknowledge the inquiry. That includes the Trump Republican campaign, as well as the Gary Johnson / William Weld Libertarian Party campaign, and the Dr. Jill Stein / Ajamu Baraka Green Party campaign.

I was not surprised that the Trump team felt they had no “skin in the game” but the silence of the 3rd and 4th ranked candidates showed how little regard there is for the Native American voters, let alone the Native silent majority. To Stein’s credit, she made an appearance at the Standing Rock Dakota Access pipeline protest camps after the DNC concluded, where she has been criminally charged. Her 2012 presidential campaign also had Indian Country connections.

As far as the status quo, President Barack Obama has been honored with bestowed gift blankets and a tribal language name during his presidency. Yet as a Native people we continue to get political lip service without accompanying action from his White House on redressing long-standing land claim issues among a litany of inequities that deserve Executive branch attention. In my opinion, Mr. Obama’s final tribal outreach amidst the current North Dakota protests resulted in a symbolic pat on the head and some sympathetic words that neither ensure clean water nor give hope to our youngest generations for the future. Yes there was an admission of trustee role failure, however, these failures still continue.

I won’t advise anyone to do anything on this upcoming Election Day. Vote your conscience if you vote. At least research your preferred candidate’s positions if you do choose to vote. The recent Wikileaks email release on Hillary Clinton’s paid private speeches show an ambivalence concerning pipeline-related employment as factoring into her political position on that subject. That would align her position as being closer to Mr. Trump’s pro-business support of pipeline projects. Neither is satisfactory as a thumbnail to what either’s successful candidacy will represent to the greater Native American interest.

If my one vote made a difference, I would send it this way. A final third party presidential candidate that I had the pleasure of meeting in Cleveland in July was a soft-spoken man wearing a turquoise choker and a cowboy hat with a small metal cross on it. His name was Barry Lester Johnson from Wyoming. His kind eyes drew me to him and he proudly reflected that his fiancée was a Cherokee tribal member and her Cherokee mother had given him her blessings for them to marry. His only campaign material was a modest business card that stated “Johnson for President”, “$5 maximum donation”.

 Although possessing only the longest of shots to attain his goal, he looked me in the eye as he spoke in a way that made his words come alive. First, Barry Johnson claimed that his beautiful jewelry was in fact once worn by the famous Native leader Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apache people. Second, he said that at his inauguration, each and every tribal nation would be invited to ring the White House in a circular encampment “in their own honor” since they are the only true Americans. He also would ask them to remain there during his term, as a daily reminder of what debts are owed to them by all of America. So from the least likely of representatives came the truest words I heard in this long campaign, now coming to a close and not a day too soon for me.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.