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Mark Trahant
ICT

More than a decade ago I was in Seattle at the top of the Westin Hotel with a few dozen people watching election returns at the Native Vote Washington Watch Party. Of course it was cool. Those of us there were sharing an experience, good or bad, about the future of the country.

That idea is powerful. In 2012 I wrote in my blog. “Let’s watch the election together. Let’s bring Indian Country together, reflecting on the election, what it means, and thoughts about what’s going to occur next.”

I was thinking about shared watch parties (and my live-blogging). Yet It hadn’t even occurred to me that the production itself, the reporting of the election news, could be transmitted through an Indigenous lens.

What a difference a decade makes. Viewers can watch this election, like the last two, and get the news directly from reporters converging candidates across Turtle Island. We are again partnering with FNX to build a live platform. Our first election night live was five hours long (how in the world did we do that?!) and in 2020, during the pandemic, our broadcast was two hours long. For that one we had to build a temporary studio (with strict Covid-19 protocols) at the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center.

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“There are more Native American candidates running for Congress, Governor, Lt. Governor, and state legislatures than ever before. And for the first time, more of those candidates are women than men. Historic,” I wrote in 2018. “But it’s like a tree falling quietly in the forest. This history would be easy to miss.”

We could not let that happen in 2018. Or in 2020. And most certainly not in 2022.

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ICT’s digital report will have up-to-the-minute results. Managing editor Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, has a team tracking a record number of Native American candidates running for Congress as well as state legislatures and a variety of offices.

This year we are producing a three-hour live broadcast from FNX studios in San Bernardino. We have reporters, correspondents and commentators in 11 states ready with live reports from across the country. Tribal radio stations also have the opportunity to air the program through a collaboration with Native Voice One.

I started covering Indigenous politics in 2010 as part of a blog I was writing at the time. Then in 2012 I partnered with Indian Country Today to cover the election as my only assignment. I was re-reading some of the two hundred pieces this week and it’s interesting how much has changed … and what has not.

Then that’s a story journalists tell often. 

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I think the first Native American to run for Congress was a Choctaw leader, Mushulatubbee. He had negotiated the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit which ceded the lands in Mississippi in exchange for survival in the Indian Territory. One of the provisions of that treaty was the right to a delegate in Congress. Then, like now, that promise was ignored by Congress.

So in 1830 Mushulatubbee ran for Congress. He told newspapers that he was a veteran “I have fought for you. I have been by your own act, made a citizen of your state; According to your laws I am an American citizen.”

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The Cherokee Phoenix did not cover his bid for Congress, but it did detail the horrible pressures from Mississippi and the federal government on the Choctaw. And on the irony that Mushulatubbee had served with Andrew Jackson. As “A Choctaw” wrote in The Phoenix: “They had fought under him; and their brethren had bled and died in his sight. They were assured that when he was informed, that the council of the Northwest District had determined that they would not emigrate, unless he said to them they must, or submit to Mississippi laws, he burst into tears and exclaimed, 'how can I say to the people who have fought with me, that they shall remove?’”

Mushulatubbee died eight years later in the Indian Territory of smallpox.

The Nixon years

Another group of Indigenous journalists who set out to cover the national U.S. elections was the American Indian Press Association in the 1970s. A coalition of tribal newspapers formed a “wire service” that sent printed press reports for republication. The journalists included Chuck Trimble, Oglala; Suzan Harjo, a Cheyenne citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma and Hodulgee Muscogee; Gary Fife, Cherokee and Muscogee, and, of course, the legendary Richard LaCourse, Yakama.

The American Indian Press Association had some really interesting scoops. It reported the promise of candidate Shirley Chisholm to appoint a Native American as Secretary of the Interior. She pushed this idea at the 1972 Democratic National Convention where she challenged the delegates to agree to a black vice presidential candidate, a woman to lead the agency Health, Education and Welfare, and a Native American at Interior.

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“And I have blown some minds,” Chisholm told LaCourse. “When Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace talk about getting minority groups and women in their cabinets, do you suppose they were saying that before I started!”

The Democrats’ nominee was George McGovern and the Indian press explored what would have been his Indian policy. McGovern said it was a larger problem than just politics. “What role for the Indian in American society today?” McGovern asked. “In many ways it is the American problem – uniquely our own, inextricably part of our culture and a product of history.”

LaCourse detailed the policy proposals coming from McGovern including what he termed as McGovern’s “absenteeism” from meetings involving Indian legislation.

And at that convention the Indian press reported on the nomination of Leon Cook, Red Lake Chippewa, for vice president.

LaCourse also charted the number of delegates at each convention, at least 25 for the Democrats and six for the Republicans.

He wrote about the Republicans convention in Miami that re-nominated Richard Nixon, including a plank that called for more Indians to be hired for top jobs in the coming administration.

Nixon’s message to tribal leaders stressed the “firm” and “unwavering” support of the greater self-determination. He also was an early “land back” advocate as “one proof of our unbending intent that self-determination becomes a reality.”

Then in 1972 most of the Indian press stories were about general candidates – there were not many Native Americans running for office. More of the stories were about Native voters. There was already evidence how the Native vote had shifted elections in South Dakota, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico.

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One early politician, however, was Dr. Ben Reifel, Lakota, who represented South Dakota in Congress. He once told me he was a Republican because he had to be. He was from South Dakota and he saw that as his only path to elective office. His “route” to Congress is unimaginable today. He retired as the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ area director in 1960 before campaigning for Congress. He went on to serve five terms.

On the radio

In terms of election night coverage it’s hard to underestimate radio. Reporters at tribal radio stations have had live programming, probably starting with the first stations in North Carolina and Alaska in 1971.

This year’s Election Night coverage from San Bernardino from FNX studios will be carried on many Native Voice One and other radio stations.

One story about the power of Native radio comes from a presidential primary. In Sen. Bernie Sander’s first campaign for the White House, he significantly raised the level of discourse about tribal nations. First of all he was present. At so many locations across the country he included tribal leaders (and protocol) in his events.

Sanders was rewarded at the polls for this initiative. In Iowa, for example, where Sanders campaigned in 2016, he won the Meskwaki Settlement by a whopping margin. And in Arizona he did really well in rural parts of the state. Except Navajo where Clinton won nearly 60 percent of the vote. One big reason for that was radio ads in Dine’ by former President Peterson Zah.

I asked Jennifer Canfield, Election Night’s executive producer, about what she has learned so far from planning this broadcast. “Last night I was wondering about the intense interest some reporters and politicos have in discussing politics as if it was a sporting event. A lot of broad discussion around personality, electability,” she wrote me. There is a lot less about the policy choices ahead and what needs to happen.

Or she added, what about more investigation into the party’s own differences, such as an Oklahoma Democrat versus a California Democrat “and why both should be important to the national party.”

The challenge for journalists is to make sure the audience knows there is an alternative.

I have been covering politics since 1976. I went to press conference with the new President-elect Jimmy Carter in northern Idaho while working for the Sho-Ban News. I learned a lot – like how to actually shout a question. I asked Carter about how reserved tribal water rights would fit into the new administration’s water policy?

Ha. He looked at me and then said that was a question for the Interior Secretary. “Next.”

So disappointing. That one word answer was not satisfactory, of course. But that's why the Indigenous media keeps asking. And on this Election Night our charge is to press for thoughtful answers from all of those running to serve.

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