Felicia Fonseca and Morgan Lee
WILLIAMS, Ariz. — Myron Lizer has no qualms about it: As one of the top officials on the country's largest Native American reservation, he's a proud Donald Trump supporter.
The Navajo Nation vice president says Native American values — hard work, family and ranching — align more with the GOP than with Democrats.
"I'm finding that we're giving the Navajo Republican voters confidence in coming out and showing their support," he told The Associated Press. "We don't need that, per se, but we do need that, but we do need that at the polls."
Lizer is part of a vocal minority pushing the president's agenda to voters long considered the Democratic Party's constituency. But Native Americans may be more politically divided than assumed, though not evenly. As in rural America, jobs aren't plentiful on many reservations and government oversight means economic development moves along at a snail's pace.
Trump has resonated among those voters, helping him cut into a Democratic constituency in some battleground states.
Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Arizona and Montana have the highest percentages of Native Americans eligible to vote, according to the National Congress of American Indians. In Arizona, that's about 310,000 potential presidential votes in a state where tribal reservations make up a quarter of the land base.
Gauging exactly how tribal members will vote is difficult because the majority do not live on reservations and county lines don't always align with tribal voters. Native American voting rights advocates say turnout could be hampered by slow mail service on reservations, long distances to polling places and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the counties that include the Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, voters overall supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, but she didn't win each county.
Counties in the Dakotas with large Native American populations saw overwhelming majorities for Clinton. The election was much closer in counties that included non-Native residents.
Still, Indian Country is diverse, made up of more than 570 federally recognized tribes, state-recognized tribes and others. And tribal leaders often are willing to work with whatever party will support their citizens' needs.
U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, where Native Americans make up 7% of the state's population, is already counting Indian Country as a GOP gain in 2020.
"Indian Country is not blue, it's purple," Mullin, who is Cherokee and one of two Native American Republicans in Congress, told The Associated Press. "And before long, it's going to be red."
Both Trump and Joe Biden outlined their plans for Indian Country this month that focus on improving tribal economies and health care, respecting tribal sovereignty and culture, investing in education and bolstering public safety.
A cast of Native Americans well-known in Republican circles gathered in mid-October in a small Arizona town that embraces a Wild West motif for the official launch of the Native Americans for Trump coalition, headlined by Donald Trump Jr. Most in the crowd decked out in clothing with stars and stripes, and Make American Great gear and cowboy hats weren't Native.
Lizer led the crowd in chanting "Yee'go Trump," loosely translated from the Navajo language as "Go, Trump."
Lizer's political ideology isn't popular among many Navajos. He's been criticized for meeting with Trump, speaking at the Republican National Convention, not always wearing a mask in public and infusing virtual town hall meetings with scripture.
But the former pastor, who is Navajo and Comanche, believes he's opened the door for Native American Republicans, including evangelical Christians and veterans, to express their views.
"I'm just saying, have an open heart to look at the other side," he told the AP. "You're getting information and news from one side, you owe it to yourself and your family to get news from the other side and weigh it."
Republicans and Democrats alike use federal coronavirus relief funding sent to tribal governments as a talking point. At $8 billion, it was the largest one-time infusion of money to tribal governments ever, but some tribes had to sue to get it and the amount was less than half of what Democrats in Congress requested.
The Trump administration also highlighted increased grant funding for public safety on tribal land and infusions of money to the federal Indian Health Service to respond to the pandemic. Those funding sources aren't recurring and can be competitive.
Former Army Cmdr. Richard David said it wasn't easy gathering people to serve with the color guard at the recent rally knowing they likely would be ridiculed when they returned home to the Navajo Nation.
David said he wasn't impressed much by Trump during the president's first three years in office. Then COVID-19 hit and highlighted the lack of water, power lines and internet access on the Navajo Nation, and he liked the way Trump responded.
"So far, he's the president who gave the most to the Navajo Nation," David said.
Democrats say there's no good reason for Native Americans to consider voting Republican. Under the Trump administration, the Mashpee Wampanoag's reservation in Massachusetts was disestablished, the Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah that included land sacred to tribes was reduced, and oil began flowing through a pipeline in North Dakota that tribes vehemently opposed.
At a rally in Michigan this month, Trump said he would not honor Indigenous people over Christopher Columbus on the federal holiday as long as he's president.
"Last-minute pandering to our communities won't change the fact that the Trump administration has failed the last four years to improve our health, safety, and economic stability," Arizona state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, who is Navajo, said in a statement.
Joe Biden has touted endorsements from more than 200 tribal leaders, including Lizer's boss, Navajo President Jonathan Nez.
Republicans have highlighted Trump's efforts to address an epidemic of missing and slain Native Americans through federal legislation and a task force. Crow Nation Chairman Alvin Not Afraid Jr. in Montana cited that in his endorsement of Trump, though tribal members had been highlighting it for years and working on their own databases.
Native American advocates for Trump have promoted their views in a short documentary that links the roots of poverty and poor public health on the Navajo Nation to what they call federal- and tribal-government sponsored "socialism."
The film, underwritten by the right-wing group Turning Point USA, denounces federal food commodity programs and contends the forced relocation of Navajos in the 19th century from the Four Corners region to eastern New Mexico began a socialistic dependence on the U.S. and tribal governments.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who was elected in 2018 as one of the first Indigenous congresswomen, said elected officials undoubtedly have failed to fulfill campaign promises to tribal nations. But she called the film "another reminder that we can't trust Republicans, and in November, we have to defeat hate, racism and bigotry."
Elisa Martinez, an anti-abortion activist with Navajo, Zuni and Hispanic heritage, said Trump and other Republican politicians deserve a greater chance. She lost her bid for the GOP nomination for a U.S. House seat in New Mexico.
"For myself, I've always asked what has the Democrat Party done to solicit this undying and unwavering support from Native country," Martinez said. "Especially when we see the type of policies they are supporting now and the very policies that have led to a cycle of poverty."