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Dalton Walker
ICT

GILA RIVER INDIAN COMMUNITY — Tribal leaders in Arizona, which has become a volatile political battleground in recent years, gathered this week to discuss the importance of the midterm election and to rally the Native vote.

Some took it beyond discussion and criticized prominent Arizona candidates. The leaders met Thursday with a trio of Republican candidates seeking key positions, including gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

One tribal leader said the meeting was lip service, another said that it lacked sincerity, while a third wondered if tribes would have a role if Lake was elected governor.

“You get to a point where you know somebody is feeding you lip service. I think there was lip service that was fed to us today,” Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said.

The Inter Tribal Association of Arizona held a news conference on Thursday at the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona in the Gila River Indian Community. Twenty-one of 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona are part of the association. The Navajo Nation is the only state tribe not involved in the organization.

The Inter Tribal Association of Arizona is a political action arm of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

The news conference was billed as a message to Native voters on election importance. However, much of it was focused on a meeting with the Republican candidates that took place minutes before. Lake, U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters and attorney general candidate Abraham "Abe" Hamadeh met with the tribal leaders. Some of the issues discussed were voting rights, drought, gaming and border security, according to the tribal leaders

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A voting sign at the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona news conference on Oct. 27, 2022 at the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona. (Photo by Dalton Walker, ICT) Native vote
Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr., speaks during a Inter Tribal Association of Arizona news conference on Oct. 27, 2022 at the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona. Norris and other tribal leaders talked about the importance of the midterm elections. (Photo by Dalton Walker, ICT)

Arizona is a major player on the national level with U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, seeking reelection against Masters and Libertarian Marc Victor. A Kelly win would help the Democrats keep the majority in the Senate. In 2020, the Native vote was a factor in turning Arizona blue in getting Kelly and President Joe Biden elected.

Native people compose a little more than 5 percent of the eligible voters in the state. Kelly is slightly favored to win in November, according to FiveThirtyEight, making Native voters, who tend to vote Democrat, key.

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“We are less than two weeks out from what I would describe as the most critical and consequential midterm election that I can recall,” Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said. “We had seen a recognition over the past few election cycles that the Native vote really does count, that the Native vote can swing an election and the Native vote is strong and getting stronger.”

When asked about the meeting with the candidates, Lewis questioned the sincerity of the candidates on Thursday.

“Only time will tell after the results whether tribes will be at the table for important issues like in the past,” he said.

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Pascua Yaqui Tribe Council member Herminia Frias said the tribe got its early voting site back in time for the midterm election but it took an elected Native person to the county recorder position to do so. In 2020, the county removed it and the tribe fought to get it back. The issue went to the courts but wasn’t resolved before that election.

"When we work with our tribal citizens, we have to remind everyone how important our vote is because like that, it can get taken away,” Frias said. “When we asked why it was taken away, there were all kinds of different reasons that were given. Every time it changed.”

Frias added: "Everything that our elders have fought for has not been easy. We can not allow our vote to go without. Our elders have fought too hard. We have to keep this going."

Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Vice President Ricardo Leonard said “Democracy is at war right now.” He gave credit to the Republican candidates for doing their “homework on some things” but said it was difficult to understand their way of thinking.

“I don't know where tribal nations will fit in Kari Lake's Arizona,” he said. “I don't think there is a place.”

Norris questions the border wall talk and says a wall isn’t the answer. The Tohono O’odham Nation is at the southern edge of Arizona and 17 O’odham communities are on the Mexico side where 1,500 enrolled citizens live. “We’re concerned about the ability to enter and exit for the benefits of service the Tohono O’odham is able to offer,” he said.

Fort Mojave Tribe Council Vice Chairman and Inter Tribal Association of Arizona President Shan Lewis agreed with what was shared by the other tribal leaders and stressed the importance of having “dialogue with whoever is in there, that they know tribes are involved with issues and tribes are here to stay.”

Lake’s campaign office could not be immediately reached for comment.

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