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Vote Early and Often

A column by Steve Russell about the importance of voting.

Should Indians show up when elections are called by the colonial state? I can’t say “Yes” because a more appropriate answer is “Hell, yes!” Bias out front: my first career was as a state court judge, which is an elected position. If Indians should not vote, it stands to reason they should not work for state or federal governments, especially as elected officials who have to swear an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the US Constitution not unlike the oath those of us who are veterans took to enter military service.

I do not understand how my citizenship in the U.S., a state, a county or a city conflicts with my citizenship in an Indian nation. Without a doubt, American Indian governments sometimes have interests that do not jibe with the official policies of other political entities. How does it follow that I should not act to change those policies if such action is open to me?

The argument that one cannot serve two sovereigns in anachronistic nonsense for reasons I’ve set out here. A sovereign is no longer a person.

To say a sovereign is dishonest, hateful, or an enemy is a statement from a time when the sovereign was a person, because these are attributes of a person. A sovereign in modern terms is a bureaucratic entity with interchangeable parts. By our citizenship, voluntary or not, we acquire the opportunity to become one of those parts or decide who does. I would argue that it’s more an obligation than an opportunity, but that’s just me.

Another obligation of citizenship is to serve on juries. If you shirk that obligation, what does that mean for Indians who demand jury trials?

Can you incur obligations without your consent? Everybody does. There’s a sense in which you “choose” your family, your clan, your country, your land. But it’s more realistic to say all these things choose you. My non-Indian friends don’t understand me when I say that Europeans own land and Indians are owned by land, but that’s one of many cultural disjunctions we have to work around to live together.

And we must live together. Where do you think they are going to go?

A vote is nothing more than speech, an expression of opinion, and certainly nothing less. I have opinions about whether Vladimir Putin should be head of the Russian government, and I’m happy to share those opinions. If I could vote in the Russian elections, you can bet I would, and my vote would not be based on any desire to harm Russia. Russians, of course, believe my opinions of their best interests are too trammeled by my U.S. or Cherokee citizenships, and so they don’t allow me to vote in Russia. That’s their prerogative.

To put it closer to home, I would vote in both Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band elections if I could. I do not think the best interests of the two conflict.

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A U.S. Supreme Court justice, dissenting in an Indian law case, wrote that great nations, like great men, should keep their word. I do not think it betrays my Cherokee citizenship if I use my voice as an involuntary U.S. citizen to urge the U.S. toward greatness. My very presence as an Indian in the political debate is a rebuke to the smug assertion that everything about the U.S. is already great.

That’s the view of conflicting sovereigns from the top, but the view from the bottom is more important in the daily lives of dual citizenship Indians.

In the state where I have taken up residence, we don’t just elect judges. Slivers of sovereignty, the power to decide vested in the nation-state, have been delegated to other entities. The Constitution delegates power to the states and the state where I live has delegated much of that power, such that I might do little but attend to elections if the various jurisdictions did not make every effort to save money by consolidating them.

Perhaps the most important vote people cast is for school board, whether or not we have kids. Then we have the State Board of Education, which picks textbooks. If you can’t see that you have an interest in the proper education of other people’s kids, then maybe you should not vote.

Municipal Utility Districts. Aquifer Protection Districts. Irrelevant, I suppose, unless you drink water.

Community College Boards. Fire Protection District Boards. City Councils.

We elected a County Inspector of Hides until 2007, but I normally skipped that one because I am not a rancher, a trapper, or a tanning booth operator, and I was never sure to which it pertained. One time I did not skip it, and a friend of mine used the office as a stepping-stone to the Legislature, where he was an ally of Indians.

A vote is a written and private expression of your opinion. It differs from verbal and public expressions in that it has more impact. If you don’t care to shape policy with your opinions, there are plenty of persons, human and corporate, who will be happy to do it for you.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.