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To Vote or Not to Vote: Native Choice

“Dependence is a marker of childhood; independence is the mark of adolescence; and interdependence is the mark of adulthood.” — Larry Alberts

I teach native politics, treaties, and federal Indian law at the University of Minnesota. In my current course, Law, Sovereignty, & Treaty Rights, we just read a splendid short article by Russel Barsh that describes the rich political and cultural diversity of Indigenous peoples at the global level. He points out, for example, how Indigenous peoples in states like the United States and Australia, where their demographic footprint is small—less than 2 percent of the overall population and controlling less than 5 percent of the territory—typically engage in intergovernmental politics very differently than in states like Bolivia, Mexico, or New Zealand, where the indigenous population is much larger: 10 to 50 percent or more and where they control or live on a much larger territorial mass.

In places like Bolivia, Native peoples wielding considerable electoral and economic power tend to focus on seeking direct representation within the national government and thus frequently align politically with other racial or ethnic groups with similar goals. However, the landscape is very different for Indigenous peoples who are a numerical minority within the confines of a large state, as in the United States. Since the late 1960s, Native nations have balanced very public efforts to maintain and strengthen autonomy with deliberate political segregation which has proven vital for delineating our existence as distinct sovereign nations separate and apart from racial, ethnic, and gender groups who generally seek a measure of inclusion in the larger polity.

When Vine Deloria, Jr. embraced the term sovereignty and encouraged Native nations to exercise their sovereign powers with cultural integrity, he meant for our nations to trust in our languages and values and to defend and grow our lands. He also strongly endorsed the dignity of our diplomatic relations – treaties– with the federal government, he was well aware of the fact that in having negotiated nearly 400 such accords, both our inherent sovereign status and interdependent relationship with the United States were affirmed.

The federal government needed our consent and recognition to forge their own political identity, and of course, they needed and negotiated for and coercively took a great portion of our lands in order to realize their national ambitions. Native nations, being differently situated, had a variety of reasons compelling them to participate in the treaty relationship. Whatever the motives behind our native ancestors’ decisions to negotiate and sign those many treaties, it is clear that over time under unrelenting pressure by the US to be absorbed, our peoples have resisted and insisted on maintaining nationhood and treaty status.

Our native citizens had federal and state citizenship thrust upon them in 1924. And today many comfortably embrace these layers of citizenship and feel at ease participating in the politics of all three governments. Those individuals have every right to vote in native elections, to vote in state races or even run for county or state office, or to pursue national office if they so desire.

Of equal importance is the reality that some native citizens still choose to participate in only their own nation’s political affairs, viewing the act of state or federal electoral participation as an affront to their nation and personal sovereign dignity. Those individuals have every right to choose that path as well.

I have the utmost respect for natives of all political persuasions—those who choose single political allegiance in their own Native nation and those who choose multiple political allegiances, including with the federal and state governments. So long as those individuals are dedicating their lives to the strengthening and enhancement of Indigenous sovereignty and the protection of our sacred homelands it is no business of mine where they cast their ballots.

A profound, inherent level of diversity is a hallmark of our collective Native nations. It is simplistic to think our multitude of voices can be joined into one indigenous movement. We have many strengths. But, perhaps our ability to incorporate perspectives from all corners of Indian Country for the collective good is one of the most important.

Those who say there is only one way to think, one way to act, and one way to participate in the political process ignore this complexity and power. It certainly would be easier to have one shared voice, one shared opinion, one shared set of goals, but there is real danger in such consolidation.

Who gets to decide? Do we choose the loudest one? The one with the most money? The one who is most “authentically” indigenous? And once a voice emerges, what becomes of the rest of us?

There are, and have always been, many indigenous movements. This is as it should be and always will be.

David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) is a citizen of the Lumbee Nation and holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of several books, including Hollow Justice: Indigenous Claims in the US (2013); The Navajo Political Experience, 4th ed. (2013); and The Hank Adams Reader (2011).