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Young Native voters can make a real difference

COMMENTARY

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - On Oct. 8, actor John Cusack came to the University of
New Mexico campus for a rally in support of the Kerry-Edwards ticket. Now,
you may ask what does John Cusack have to do with Indian country? Well, a
lot, if you are a young American Indian, a film buff of his many movies,
such as "Grosse Pointe Blank", "High Fidelity" and Cusack's early cult
classic "Say Anything." As I watched Cusack work the crowd, I was struck by
the many faces of the young Native voters who were cheering and holding up
their DVD copies of his movies, hoping to get an autograph from the
charismatic and politically potent actor.

Many argue and question the validity of celebrities offering their support
to a political candidate, but in the end they are voters just like the rest
of us, and while some may not like it, celebrities do have the ability to
influence voters; in Cusack's case, young voters. I asked one American
Indian student in the crowd why he went to the rally. Anslem Lewis is
Navajo, 23 years old and from Coyote Canyon, N.M. and majoring in political
science at the University of New Mexico. Lewis said while he admits he went
to see Cusack and hoped to meet him, he did not care about Cusack's
political views, but the rally impacted him none the less. "He influenced
me in that voting is important - no matter at what level, whether it is at
the national level or at the chapter level, voting is a silent voice that
is heard. It's important to get out there and vote to protect oneself from
what's out there in the future."

While Lewis' original hope of meeting the actor did not materialize, he did
come away with something more - someone speaking out and acknowledging that
his vote as a young college student does count. Yes, Cusack did pound the
pros and cons of the presidential candidates and was clear about his
support for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. However, his public appearance and
message did something more - he focused his words and attention on the fact
that young adults think, have an opinion and do care about what is going on
around them.

I asked Cusack what he thought about the fact that historically young
adults and their voting history have been labeled as apathetic and that
they are unwilling to take part in the political system. Cusack said he
feels otherwise. "I think a lot of young people are fed up with being taken
for granted and having their intelligence insulted."

In the Intro to Sociopolitical Concepts course I instruct for the Native
American Studies department at the University of New Mexico, I assigned my
students a project to get involved with one of the non-partisan voter
registration and poll watching groups in the area. The goal of the project
was to have the student look at the political process and ultimately see
how it impacts Indian country and Indian people. At first the assignment
was met with silent enthusiasm from some of the class, who were less
politically inclined or hesitant about asserting themselves in front of
complete strangers.

However, as Cusack so passionately encouraged young adults to get involved,
get their voices heard and show the political system what they are made of,
I have seen that such encouragement works.

Many of my students have come to class each week, since the semester began
in August, with stories of getting people registered to vote at shopping
centers, state fairs, pow wows, on the reservation and nearby border towns.
They have seen the challenge of what it takes to register voters and how
being a part of the political process begins with someone such at
themselves. While some students decided to take part with formal voter
registration and polling projects, such as Moving America Forward, Native
American Voters Alliance, Rock the Vote and Native Vote 2004 Election
Protection Program, others have taken the initiative to work with their own
tribal communities.

One UNM student Elanda Luna-Dewa, from Zuni Pueblo in Zuni, N.M. contacted
her former high school civics teacher at Zuni High School and asked if she
could speak to the high school students and encourage those old enough to
register to vote, not only in the national election, but in the upcoming
special tribal election. Luna-Dewa took it upon herself to speak to the
students and help demystify everything from registering to the actual
voting day process.

Another student organized her own registration project with her pueblo
community and sought support from other voting projects and fellow
classmates. Her enthusiasm and dedication was met with challenges from her
own tribal government as to the importance of registering people to vote.
She also experienced some resistance and apathetic attitudes from tribal
members as to why voting matters and why Indians should take part of the
political process. In spite of the obstacles, the student said she learned
a lot about the tribal and national political process, more than she had
originally anticipated. She knows it is a matter of education, persistence
and time, to get others in her community to see the importance of voting
and the election process.

All in all, John Cusack's visit to the UNM campus and watching my students
get involved in a variety of ways politically have confirmed and reassured
me young adult voters, young American Indian voters especially, are ready
and willing to become politically active and involved. It is not that they
are apathetic, but perhaps it is those of us, who have long left our late
teens and early 20s behind, who need to wake up. Wake up to the fact that
it is up to us to encourage, support and challenge our young American
Indians to become involved. To hear what they are saying and quit telling
them "they are the future," but that they are important to our tribal
communities today, for today is yesterday's tomorrow, that we all cannot
afford to waste.

Mary Bowannie, Zuni Pueblo/Cochiti Pueblo, is a freelance journalist and
visiting lecturer with the Native American Studies department at the
University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M.