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Mary Annette Pember
ICT

From "something else" to “Indigenous creatures,” Native voters hit the polls in high numbers once again. And as in the 2020 presidential election, they made a difference.

During the 2020 presidential election, CNN infamously classified Native Americans as “something else.

Prior to the current midterm elections, an ABC anchor misspoke, calling Native peoples “Indigenous creatures” in a lead-up to a story about November as Native American Heritage Month.

In typical Native-style, folks have appropriated the quote, spreading hilarious memes on social media celebrating their creature-hood.

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All kidding aside, Native voters took this year’s midterm elections seriously and turned out in high numbers, according to reports on election night.

Although Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton declared a state of emergency on Nov. 4 after tornadoes struck the area, voters headed to the polls in Oklahoma in numbers greater than in past years, according to Oklahoma Watch.

Kristina Humenesky, the senior director for public relations for the Choctaw Nation, told ICT that citizens didn’t let the weather keep them from voting.

“The tribe made sure people understood that this an important election; a lot is at stake here in Oklahoma,” said Humenesky, who is non-Native.

Indigenous candidates were running for governor and for two seats in Congress.

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Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, a wealthy businessman whose time in office has been rocked by feuds with tribal nations and members of his own party, fought off a challenge from Democrat Joy Hofmeister to win a second-term.

Although Stitt is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, five of the state’s 39 tribes, including his own, endorsed Hofmeister.

Republican Markwayne Mullin was declared the winner in his race for U.S. Senate, making him the first Native American to serve in the Senate in nearly 20 years.

And Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cole of the Chickasaw Nation held a comfortable lead in his bid for an 11th term in Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional district.

The races drew hot comments — pro and con — on social media.

Charles Graham, Lumbee, who was running for North Carolina’s 7th congressional district, drew praise along with Democratic Black senatorial candidate Cheri Beasley.

“I hope to GOD, NC sends its first Black woman Cheri Beasley to the U.S. Senate and first Native American Charles Graham to the House tonight,” one person posted on Twitter.

Neither Graham nor Beasley, won, however, though it was a tight race for both of them.

One Twitter user declared he wanted to get into a fist fight with the Oklahoma governor in a Waffle House parking lot.

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And comments about Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids included delight that despite the redrawing of districts in the Kansas House map, she won re-election.

Twitter comments about Native election participation also reflected a spectrum of opinions, from fatalistic snark to praise and encouragement to vote.

“We honor Native Americans, especially in an election year, by not accepting their PO Boxes as legitimate voting addresses,” one Twitter user noted.

“Did you know there are over 100 Native Americans running for public offices? Make your voice heard today,” another said.

And there were lots of posts saying, “Sko Vote Den,” which means “go vote then,” a reference to slang pronunciation common in Native communities.

Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids reelected in redrawn Kansas district, Nov. 8, 2022. (Photo by Rhonda LeValdo, ICT)

In North Dakota, where six Indigenous candidates were running for the state House, voter Denise Lajimodiere expressed anxiety in an interview with ICT.

“I’m sick to my stomach with nerves,” said Lajimodiere, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

“Women’s rights, access to abortion, are big issues for me,” she said. “Unfortunately North Dakota is a very red state but all the reservations are blue.”

For the first time, the Native American Rights Fund organized a poll-watchers program to ensure that Native voters facing push back at election sites had resources to address these issues.

Nearly 40 poll watchers were stationed at polling sites in North Dakota, Nevada, Wisconsin and Montana. Watchers contacted attorneys at NARF who helped voters and poll workers navigate any legal questions regarding identification, addresses or voters not receiving mail-in ballots.

Most voting issues were regarding addresses or identification, according to Jacqueline De León, staff attorney at NARF and a citizen of the Isleta Pueblo.

“Even though there are legal alternative ways for voters to prove they live in a district, poll workers may not be familiar with them,” she said.

For instance, voters in North Dakota can point to a precinct map indicating where they live and sign an affidavit.

In 2020, NARF and the Campaign Legal Center representing the Spirit Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe won a longstanding legal battle with the state of North Dakota over voting rights for Native Americans.

In 2013, the state of North Dakota passed a restrictive voter ID law requiring addresses to be listed. Many Native people in the rural state use post office boxes rather than physical mailing addresses.

Ten attorneys with NARF and the Colorado University Law School fielded questions from poll watchers throughout the day, but De León said it was too early to know which states had the most problems.

“It’s critical that we have poll watchers available to help people; unfortunately the voting process isn’t always welcoming to Native people,” De León said.

NARF also partners with the Election Protection Hotline so any voters who identify as Native can be referred to NARF.

“We’ve seen this trend during close elections that Native votes, which are often from rural areas and come in last, are contested,” she said. “We are aggressively pushing back and letting everybody know that Native votes are American votes.”

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