WASHINGTON – After David Wilkins, a Lumbee professor of political science and law at the University of Minnesota, tells his students that he chooses not to vote in federal and state elections, he observes that many of his Native students’ eyes tend to bug out.
“Even when I explain my rationale, they still can’t understand it – there has been so much integration politically and economically that has led the majority of Native people to think it is in their political and economic interest to participate along with everybody else,” he said.
“They’re taken aback that some of us still don’t vote, because they simply assume that we’re all Americans now, and we all have the same rights. Well, we don’t.”
Nowadays, it’s almost a taboo subject to talk about: Every election season, some American Indians consciously choose not to vote in national, state or even local elections, since they feel that participation in those political systems results in assimilation that could ultimately be harmful to tribal sovereignty.
Perhaps during this cycle more than ever before, Natives who choose not to vote are becoming marginalized, especially as organizations like the National Congress of American Indians have fervently supported a strong Indian presence in the nation’s voting booths.
“The real danger is that at some point, there are going to be people at the national and state levels who are going to begin to view tribal nations not so much as nations anymore, but as mere interest groups.
“Once we get perceived as that and solely that, I think there may well be a profound non-Indian backlash that [could] lead to the utter demise of tribal sovereignty and tribal treaty rights.”
Robert Odawi Porter, a Seneca law professor at Syracuse University, said that many tribal members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in New York state prescribe to the no-vote philosophy.
“Maybe it’s something in the water,” he joked, but he also noted that partly because tribes in New York have taken firm stands on sovereignty, they are among the only tribal nations in the country not to have to pay a state tax on cigarette sales.
Porter himself believes that if he were to vote in American elections, he would be accepting that he is a citizen of the United States rather than his tribe.
“If you jump to the other side, then who stands to defend your treaty status? Countries don’t enter into treaties with citizens of their own nations – they enter into them with citizens of other governments. We, as Indians, are distinct and unique.”
Given that many Native-focused organizations and individuals have worked overtime to highlight what they call the importance of the Indian vote this year, the historical reality of Indian participation is being obscured and forgotten, according to Porter and others.
In fact, before American Indians were granted U.S. citizenship in 1924, only a very small segment of Natives who sought to actively participate in state and national elections and American politics in general.
Wilkins, author of “American Indian Politics and the American Political System,” noted, too, that some tribes were adamantly against the U.S. action to give Natives the right to vote. Some tribal leaders, he said, sent messages to Washington saying, in effect, “How dare you impose your citizenship over us – we already have citizenship in our own nations.”
Through much of the 20th century, the number of Native participants in nontribal elections was always quite small in large part, he said, because tribal members wanted to maintain a clear political distinction from the U.S. as separate sovereign nations.
Research now suggests that Native political involvement dramatically erupted in the 1990s. Porter and others believe the increased participation happened largely as a result of some tribes beginning to have gaming revenue, and, in turn, wanting increased control over policymakers who were making laws that could affect their enterprises.
Porter said he doesn’t mind when Indians participate in the election system to influence non-Native voters to elect candidates that may serve tribal interests, but he stops short at saying Indians themselves should be directly voting.
Pointing to the growing numbers of Indian candidates who are running for local, state and national offices, he added that maybe these candidates should instead be running for tribal offices in order to help their own people from the inside.
“I don’t think anyone in the world has to be an isolationist to defend their own sovereignty and their own citizenship. But there is a line there.”
Robert Williams, a Lumbee University of Arizona law professor, takes the majority viewpoint that voting is an important duty to help see that tribal rights are always remembered and protected by policymakers.
“Honestly, I can’t imagine a more important election in my lifetime for Indian country with at least two near-sure Supreme Court appointments coming up and the fact that they are likely to be ones that replace the oldest members of the court who at least sometimes vote for Indian rights,” he said.
Porter calls arguments like Williams’ “self-defeating.”
“Your treaty rights exist because your people defend them – not because the Supreme Court says you have them or not.”