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To vote or not to vote

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The 2008 election is just behind us. During the campaign there was some inevitable debate among Indians about whether to vote in elections of the United States. The question was always, if Indian nations are sovereign, should Indian citizens vote in non-tribal elections?

Indians are not consensual citizens of the United States and they retain rights to membership or citizenship in Indian nations. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which is often known as the Snyder Act, extended citizenship and voting rights, as well as defined and affirmed U.S. government program obligations to American Indians. To some extent, American Indians were granted citizenship for services rendered as soldiers in World War I.

American Indians have dual citizenship, the general impact and details of which were worked out through policy debates during the middle twentieth century. While many Indians were not interested in U.S. citizenship, some tribal and national Indian groups lobbied hard in Congress for citizenship. This Indian pro-citizenship lobbying effort might be called an American Indian Civil Rights Movement.

Some national and tribal Indian leaders wanted the right to vote, the ability to participate in the U.S. market economy, and wanted to avoid discrimination in schools and at public places. The Alaska Native Brotherhood lobbied in favor of the citizenship act because they wanted Indians to own businesses, have their children educated in public schools, and have access to public facilities, movie houses and restaurants.

The American government was willing to grant citizenship since it viewed it as an eventual solution to the Indian problem – as citizens, American Indians would become integrated into U.S. society. Throughout the 1930s, up to the 1970s, government policies continued to emphasize the eventual assimilation of American Indians which would be marked by full citizenship rights and incorporation into American economic and political life.

The termination policy was an effort to sever the government-to-government relations of Indian tribes, and enable former tribal members to join American society as full citizens. Indians who opposed termination policy were not denying U.S. citizenship, but did not want to trade their cultural identities, governments, claims to territory and communities for entry into American society. The anti-termination movement wanted both U.S. citizenship and recognition of indigenous rights outlined in treaties and government policies. The right to vote was not granted easily by many states. Many law cases were required before Indians were allowed to vote in some states.

Most American Indians are comfortable with dual citizenship that acknowledges both tribal and U.S. citizenship, although dual citizenships are not always legally compatible. Nevertheless, most American Indians do not deny the right to participate in American elections.

Recent Indian nationalist positions suggest that Indians should not vote in U.S. elections and participate in tribal government elections only. The decision of whether to vote is an individual choice. It is possible that individuals or communities could decline to vote. However, this position runs counter to the historical struggles to define tribal and U.S citizen rights. While all are encouraged to play an active role in tribal governments and elections, tribal members should also play an active role in U.S. political elections and institutions.

The purpose of indigenous government is not to compete with or to supersede nation states, but to ensure that indigenous cultures, land, rights, and governments continue to serve their communities indefinitely into the future. We can best do this not by power or force, but by active engagement and respectful consensual relations with other peoples, including nation states and national communities. As in tribal communities, the ultimate path to well being is through consensus and respect.