'Something else' may make all the difference this election

Menikanaehkem, Menominee Community Rebuilders voting advocates provide rides to the polls on Election Day. (Photo courtesy Menikanaehkem)

Election 2020

Although small and difficult to measure, the Native voting population is powerful

Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Native Americans have always known they are “something else.”

Something else as in extraordinary.

Something else as in a force to be reckoned with.

And something else that’s often missed as being part of the national conversation.

CNN's Election Day poll of voters’ ethnicities in Arizona — and its “Something Else” designation — is just the latest version of a longer story.

CNN listed voter ethnicities as White, Black, Latino and Asian; Native people, however, were lumped into a catch-all classification with which they have become all too familiar. As the National Congress of American Indians has noted, lack of data often renders Native people invisible to media and governmental agencies, thus relegating us to an “Asterisk Nation” rather than a data point.

But it may be that the asterisk, something-else nation is playing an important role in driving the 2020 election outcomes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wisconsin, where Natives compose 1.5 percent of the voting population. The Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner in Wisconsin by about 20,500 votes; that’s a bit less than 1 percent of the state’s voters.

President Donald Trump won the 2016 election in Wisconsin by 0.7 percent. Only about 50 percent of Native voters turned out in that election. Guy Reiter, executive director of Menikanaehken Inc., a grassroots organization based on the Menominee Reservation in northeast Wisconsin, presciently noted in a previous interview that had more Native voters turned out, they could have changed the outcome of the 2016 election.

“We’re pretty much our own county here on the Menominee Reservation,” Reiter said.

More than 60 percent of eligible voters in Menominee County registered this year.

“We were busy all day this year driving people to the polls,” he said.

Bayfield and Ashland counties in the northwestern part of the state, home to the Red Cliff and Bad River Bands of Ojibwe, where Native voters came out in strong numbers, also helped drive support for Biden.

Biskogone, Gregg Johnson of the Lac du Flambeau reservation in Wisconsin encourages Natives to vote. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin Native Vote.)
Biskakone Greg Johnson of the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in Wisconsin encourages Natives to vote. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin Native Vote.)

Indeed, a slightly deeper dive into states with significant Native populations shows similar voting patterns.

In Arizona, Coconino County, home to the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai Kaibab-Paiute and Havasupai tribes; Apache County, home of the Navajo, Zuni and White Mountain Apache tribes; and Pima County, home to the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes, all voted overwhelmingly for Biden.

Native Americans compose 5.6 percent of eligible voters in Arizona.

Among the five states that have not yet declared election results, Nevada is home to 19 tribes, with the largest populations in Washoe and Clark counties, where Biden is currently in the lead.

Biden has only to win one of four states, Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia or Pennsylvania, to reach 270 electoral votes and win the election, according to the AP.

The Trump campaign has already announced a demand for a recount in Wisconsin. According to state law, however, Wisconsin will pay for a recount only if the winning margin is 0.25 percent or less.

“Native people have always carried the water for democracy in this country,” said Philomena Kebec, citizen of the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe in Wisconsin.

“As we move forward, regardless of the outcome, it would be right for Democrats to stand with us to uphold sovereignty, treaty rights, work for environmental justice and criminal justice reform.”

Indian Country Today was unable to reach CNN for comment.

However, the network told APTN News that the gaffe had been rectified.

“Our exit poll results included a poor choice of words and in no way did we intend to minimize the importance of indigenous communities and the Native American vote,” spokeswoman Alison Rudnick told APTN in an email. “We have corrected it for any of our coverage moving forward.”

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

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