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There are 1,678 caucus rooms in the state of Iowa. Only one is located in Indian Country. Since 1999, the Meskwaki Settlement, home to the Sac & Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa, has been designated as its own caucus precinct. Located about an hour northeast of Des Moines, the Meskwaki are the only federally recognized tribe in Iowa.

On Monday evening, February 3, the Meskwaki Tribe will join their fellow Iowans as the first voters in the nation to kick off the 2020 presidential election season. State of Iowa voters participate in a quintessentially grassroots democratic process called caucuses.

“We may be Meskwaki Indians but we are also Iowans; we take our little caucus very seriously,” said Johnathon Buffalo, Meskwaki tribal historic preservation officer.

Residents of the Meskwaki Settlement located in Tama County, however, have often felt overlooked in both Iowa and U.S. elections.

“Our people have only recently begun to show more interest in participating in caucuses,” said Donnielle Wanatee of the Meskwaki Tribe. Wanatee is 2020 precinct Democratic chairperson for the Meskwaki Settlement.

“Traditionally, we haven’t been that engaged in the political process. People don’t believe that their voice matters to the state of Iowa or the country at large,” she said.

Wanatee’s father, Donald Wanatee Sr. was the precinct chairperson at the Settlement during its first caucus in 2000.

Before 1999, Settlement residents caucused in nearby non-Native communities depending on the geographic location of their homes.

“Two people showed up for that first caucus in 2000,” Wanatee said.

Johnathon Buffalo, Meskwaki tribal historic preservation officer in tribal museum the weekend before the 2020 Iowa Caucus. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

How does the Iowa Caucus work?

In a primary, voters simply choose their preferred candidate. Caucuses require strangers and neighbors to spend a winter evening in high school gyms or community centers. Participants first line up for their favored candidate. If that candidate doesn't receive more than 15 percent of the vote in the room, the candidate is eliminated and supporters can align with one of the remaining White House hopefuls.

The results are counted again. Delegates are awarded based on that final number.

The caucuses have an added twist this year because the Iowa Democratic Party will release more data than ever. While the party previously only released information on delegates, it will now report the first round of voting, the second vote “realignment" and the final delegate count.

The Associated Press will base its race call of the winner on state delegate equivalents because delegates are the measure used to decide the eventual winner of the nomination. But the new information is causing some voters to take their first round choices more seriously because those decisions will now be public.

Meskwaki Tribal Caucus

Christina Blackcloud, Meskwaki tribal member and vice chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Native American caucus credits social media for helping to educate and involve more residents of the Settlement in the caucuses.

“The Settlement has definitely been overlooked by local, state and national politics; politicians seldom reached out to us,” she said.

This year is different. Presidential candidates Steve Bullock, Julian Castro, Bernie Sanders, Marianne Williamson, Cory Booker visited the settlement during their campaigns.

Tribes are gaining attention from politicians craving the social currency associated with indigenous led environmental advocacy and awareness.

According to Meskwaki Tribal Chairman Dawson Davenport, the Indigenous vote has gained importance overall in the U.S.

The now famous Native-led opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 on the Standing Rock Reservation in N. Dakota helped focus Native and non-Native concerns about the role fossil fuels play in driving climate change.

“Standing Rock made our people aware of climate change and got them more interested in addressing it through involvement with politics,” he said.

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The Meskwaki Lady Warriors volleyball finished their practice with a snowball fight in front of the Meskwaki Nation tribal center. The Democratic caucus takes place in the building Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. CST. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)
Beautiful weather on the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama, Iowa, is expected to hold on through Feb. 3 ensuring a good turnout for the Democratic presidential caucus. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

“The environmental impact of climate change is one of our biggest concerns on the Settlement; we are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to create our own water quality standards,” Davenport said

“For several years our waterways on the Settlement have been closed to fishing and swimming due to run off from factory farms that surround our community,” he said.

“I think the young people all over the world are starting to get involved; They realize the changing world is going to be their world. We’re (older people) the ones that made the mess but they are going to have to live in it. The youth are waking up on the whole fallout from the impact of climate change,” Buffalo said.

“Native people forward the idea that humans should care about and care for the environment. The Meskwaki have lived in this region for centuries and survived many life-threatening episodes. The rest of the world can learn from us,” Buffalo said.

“Our prayers and stubbornness have helped us survive,” he added.

Indeed, the Meskwaki Tribe has a unique standing in the United States. They were removed from their Iowa homelands in 1845 to a reservation in Kansas as part of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. By the 1850’s, many returned from Kansas. In 1857, the Meskwaki Tribe also known as the Red Earth People, purchased 80 acres of land in Tama County, Iowa, that they held in common. Eventually they purchased lands totaling 80 thousand acres. Today’s Settlement, home to about 700 of the tribe’s 1400 citizens, is not a reservation; it is private purchased property held in common by the tribe, a sovereign nation recognized by the federal government as part of Indian Country.

The Meskwaki Tribe were also among the first Native peoples in the U.S. to practice their right to vote after the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.

“We voted in the November 1924 presidential election,” said Buffalo. Native peoples were not allowed to vote in every U.S. state until 1962.

Volunteers like Wanatee are working to revitalize that tenacious spirit.

“My biggest push is to educate people about the new rules of the caucus process and get them more engaged," Wanatee said.

Meskwaki Settlement caucus precinct chairwoman Donnielle Wanatee and her daughter Loveena Jefferson, 11, at their home on the Settlement. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

Unlike past years, caucus goers can no longer change their initial candidate choices if the candidates are viable. A candidate who receives at least 15 percent of caucus supporters is considered viable.

This years’ caucuses will also permit the use of satellite locations in which Iowa Democrats who can’t otherwise attend their precinct caucus get the chance to caucus during extended hours at locations other than their assigned precincts. According to the Iowa Democratic Party, Iowans will be caucusing at 97 additional locations including 69 in-state, 25 out of state (across 13 states) and 3 international sites such as Scotland, France and the Republic of Georgia.

“We can play a big role in determining the winner of the caucuses. After all, our region is the most bipartisan area of the state. The Settlement traditionally votes 93-95 percent Democratic,” she said.

The Iowa caucuses are hugely influential in determining the outcome of the Democratic nomination. According to National Public Radio, the last seven of nine candidates who won Iowa went on to be the party’s presidential nominee.

And according to the Des Moines Register, the increase in Native American voters in key battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina could overcome President Donald Trump’s past victories there.

Wanatee expects caucus turnout on the settlement to be at an all-time high.

“People have to be 21 years old to vote in our tribal elections but the caucus and presidential election gives our younger citizens a chance to participate,” she said. “Plus, people really want to get rid of Trump.”

Indian Country Today’s live coverage of caucus action begins Monday at 7 p.m. Central Time from the Meskwaki Settlement.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mary Annette Pember is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and based in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. See more at MAPember.comWinner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today.