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Kalle Benallie
ICT

Not only can the urban Native vote significantly make a difference in elections, they can bring in Indigenous elected officials to the table.

“The Native Americans who are having an opportunity to step up and get into public service really are in the city of Albuquerque, are urban Natives. This is really where we have the opportunity to have a good bang for our buck,” Austin Weahkee, political director for New Mexico Native Vote, said.

Patricia Roybal Caballero, Piro Manso Tiwa, and Charlotte Little, San Felipe Pueblo, are both running for positions in the state House in Bernalillo County, which is New Mexico’s most populous county and includes Albuquerque. Its Native American and Alaska Native population is about 38,000.

Weahkee said the urban Native vote can affect if issues like police violence, high dropout rates, suicide rates, lower literacy and low access to good healthcare can be addressed. He said they don’t necessarily have the same support as tribal communities.

“We don’t have the ability to lean on our communities in a way that people living tribally might have the ability to lean on each other in their very tight knit communities and the ability to lean on their tribal government and sovereignty to really help each other out,” he said.

Nonetheless tribal and urban Native communities are still facing the same challenges.

“These are issues which we understand affect our community at-large. This is not something that’s bound to city limits,” Weahkee said.

The urban Native vote is strong, potentially.

About 71 percent of Native and Alaska Native people live in urban areas away from their homelands. In Albuquerque, the Native American and Alaska Native population is 31,700, Phoenix’s is 41,000 and Tulsa’s is 40,000, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

The next leader of one of the largest tribes, both in numbers and land, the Navajo Nation, was in Phoenix for a recent presidential candidate debate as a way to connect to the Phoenix-area Navajo voters. 

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Alaina Capoeman-Davis, the program manager for Native Action Network, a nonprofit organization that focuses on elevating Indigenous women leaders in local, state, tribal and national politics, told the “ICT Newscast with Aliyah Chavez” that having Indigenous leadership can benefit their tribal communities back home.

She said Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit and Aleut, and Claudia Kauffman, Nez Pearce, attended their “advocacy boot camp” which led them to run for Washington state House and Senate.

“It shouldn’t be something that’s unusual. We should definitely be at the table, getting our votes count, having people that look like us that are from our communities in those positions to make changes and make things happen in our states and in our communities,” the Quinault Nation citizen and a descendant of the Gros-Ventre Tribe and Hoopa Tribe said.

Aaron Leggett, chief and president of the Native Village of Eklutna, said the urban Alaska Native vote can help with putting their concerns at the forefront.

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He said their tribe doesn’t receive any preference on issues related to fish since they are located away from their traditional homelands in Anchorage. They have seen the fish population on the traditional homelands decline, they’re unable to harvest their own fish and have to buy a sports license along with the rest of the city.

“Because we live in an urban area we’re not given a rural priority that Natives in more rural locations are able to do,” Leggett said.

The Native American and Alaska Native population in Anchorage is nearly 24,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Marna Sanford, the government legal affairs director for Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Alaska Native non-profit corporation, said that it’s difficult to inspire urban Alaska Native voters to go to the polls compared to their rural counterparts.

She said of the 37 federally recognized tribes that she works with their average voting turnout percentage is 70 to 80 percent. In urban Alaska like Fairbanks, the voting turnout is about 12 percent.

“If all the Alaska Native people who lived in urban Alaska turned out they would control the state House and the state Senate,” Sanford said.

 She added, despite Mary Peltola’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives and her ongoing campaign for the next term has created excitement, it's hard to tell if it’ll impact voter turnout.

“People want to see Alaska Native people on the ballot. I’m hopeful that will inspire folks,” she said.

A population ‘overlooked’

Denise Sweet, Native Vote manager for Wisconsin Conservation Voices, said organizing the urban Native vote takes a lot of energy because they tend to be elusive about their locations, but they can be found if you know the community centers where they gather.

On Oct. 21 they targeted Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, Inc. in Milwaukee as the spot for a mural where Ho-Chunk communities are concentrated. It was created by a Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe artist, Christopher Sweet.

Milwaukee has a population of 7,500 Native American and Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re hoping with events like that we’ll gain the attention and in some ways the respect and of the consonance of Milwaukee Natives. That they know Wisconsin Native Vote invests time and energy because we care about not only that Native people in Milwaukee vote, but we care about what resources are available to them and improving that. Our work is cut out for us that’s for sure,” she said.

Sweet said through her work with the organization, she has come across urban Natives who are misinformed and Wisconsin Native Vote wants to change that.

She recalls speaking with an urban Native elder for the 2018 midterm elections and encouraging her to vote, when the elder told Sweet that she wanted to save her vote for the 2020 presidential election.

“That might seem comical to some people but to me it’s terribly sad because here’s an elder who’s lived 60-plus years and she’s been saving her vote for only presidential elections thinking that one vote, one person meant one vote and she’s saved hers for the presidency,” she said. 

As an urban Native, Sweet said ever since she took the position six years ago that she doesn't want the urban Native population to be overlooked by the elected officials who are supposed to be the representative of.

“We want to make sure that we’re represented. That people are accepted and treated fairly at the polls and as well as knowing that someday we expect our children or even our voting members right now to consider running for public office,” she said. “It’s a long process, but what better way to start than at the polls and to encourage people to vote.” 

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