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Stevens Jr.: Let the Native voice be heard

The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights and duties we have as American citizens and is the foundation of our government. Our nation’s democratic system is founded on the abiding principle that people consent to be governed. One of the most basic and important ways we give our consent is by casting our vote.

In just a few weeks, on Nov. 4, we will be going to the polls to select new leadership in the White House and Washington, D.C. Our voting right ensures that we have a say in our communities and this country’s future. Whether we take advantage of that opportunity is up to us.

Recent history has shown that our vote in Indian country has been critical to the outcome of many recent elections. The Native vote does make a difference at all three levels: national, state and local.

I encourage everybody to once again be part of the empowerment of our people in Indian country and make your voice heard at the ballot box. By going to the polls in record numbers once again, your voice will solidify the Native voice in Washington, D.C., and will be the difference in making sure that the leaders we elect will join us in defending our sovereignty and are committed to serving the interests of Indian country.

It is no secret that legislators respond to numbers and if we turn out in record numbers again on Election Day, your voice will be that much stronger on Capitol Hill. Our collective electoral power can help bring the improvements we seek for our communities. Public policy can be influenced and your vote will be the strength, the catalyst, in helping us move the Indian country priorities further.

We must select people who will work on behalf of the best interests of Indian country regarding adequate health care, quality education, the right to fully govern our lands and to protect our tribal citizenry, and the right to see that our nation’s commitments to tribes are fulfilled.

All around this country, in every major election over the past few years our vote has made a tremendous difference. That is why pushing the Native vote has been a priority in this electoral cycle, especially in many of the key swing states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin. They know that the Indian country vote will once again make a difference.

We must select people who will work on behalf of the best interests of Indian country regarding adequate health care, quality education, the right to fully govern our lands and to protect our tribal citizenry, and the right to see that our nation’s commitments to tribes are fulfilled. The price of not voting is too high right now, with potential budget cuts to Indian country programs as a result of the economic crisis.

Many say that one vote will not make a difference and many people mistakenly believe that what happens on Capitol Hill has nothing to do with their daily lives. That is simply not true.

With the advent of Indian gaming, which began in earnest in the early 1990s, tribal communities have taken advantage of the unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our communities and revitalize our economies, languages and cultures.

As an advocacy organization, our job at the National Indian Gaming Association is to continue to work on behalf of Indian country regarding the legislative issues that impact Indian gaming. Fulfilling our mission at NIGA – advancing the lives of Indian people – economically, socially and politically, can all be greatly aided by the Indian country voter turnout. Your vote empowers our efforts and is the defense of tribal sovereignty, Indian self-determination, and the promotion of economic development on behalf of Indian country.

I commend the efforts of those who continue to work at energizing the Native vote by working all over Indian country, coordinating “get out and vote” initiatives, and committing themselves to working at increasing our Native presence at the polls.

Right here in my state of Wisconsin, the Native Get Out The Vote initiative has been in full force. I was honored with the opportunity to be part of the GOTV bus tour. Led by tribal elders Eunice Stick of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and Delores Johns of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, and coordinated by Gerald Danforth, former chairman of the Oneida Tribe, and Scott Vele, executive director of the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, the GOTV bus tour was successful in reaching out to all of the tribes in Wisconsin, registering hundreds of voters.

Further, it was exciting that the bus tour made visits to all 11 tribes throughout Wisconsin and were met by tribal leadership, tribal membership, employees and their local GOTV forces who have worked for months in each of their communities on this campaign.

During our visit to the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe, Chairman Phillip Shopodock said, “The importance of coming together, united in the effort to get out the vote will not go unnoticed. We will make it clear that we can make the difference not only in our local and state elections, but as a key voting state in the race for the presidency of the United States. Without a doubt, the Wisconsin Native vote will make a difference.”

Throughout Indian country there are continued examples of the Native GOTV drive, such as ours in Wisconsin. Many people are volunteering their time and efforts in each of their tribal communities to amplify the Native voice. I know this Indian country-wide effort will prove rewarding. The Indian country vote will be the significant vote this election year.

We all yearn to make a difference, and elections provide that opportunity. The right to vote means nothing if we don’t show up at the polls.

Let’s make our voices heard. Let’s continue to make democracy work for us.

Ernest L. Stevens, Jr. an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. He has been the Chairman and national spokesman for the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) in Washington, DC since 2001. NIGA, established in 1985, is a non-profit organization of 168 Indian Nations with other non-voting associate members representing tribes and businesses engaged in tribal gaming enterprises from around the country