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Today is National Voter Registration Day and all across the country people are urging others to register to vote. When it comes to Indian country, how are tribal citizens responding to this effort? It's always a challenge to get out the Native vote and this year COVID-19 presents even more challenges. Extra measures need to be implemented to ensure the health of voters and poll workers. In North Dakota three very determined Native women are coming together to raise even more voter awareness.

They are all from the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Nu'Eta, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. On Tuesday's newscast we have Prairie Rose Seminole who is a policy analyst with the Indigenous Environmental Network, Twyla Baker who is the president of the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College and Rep. Ruth Buffalo, the North Dakota State House Representative in District 27. 

The newscast wraps up with Indian Country Today's most attention grabbing story. When the announcement was made that two tribes are going to start helping with the testing of the coronavirus vaccine, it caused some controversy among tribal citizens. Mary Annette Pember is our national correspondent and she joins us to talk about the story that she wrote recently for Indian country today about the vaccine trials. 

Here are a few comments:

Twyla Baker:
"It's been years that I've been an active voter and engaged in voting efforts. I think my kind of moment of realization was when I understood that for a portion of my dad's life, he actually was not able to vote because Native people didn't get the right to vote for quite some time. As this group probably knows. So to me, him serving in the army and so many of us are being represented in the military fighting for those rights and what have you." 

"Being the first people that occupied this continent and being amongst the last to get the right to vote, that's what has really driven me for many, many years in regards to being civically engaged."

Ruth Buffalo:
"Most recently back to 2016, when there were three of us Native Americans running in a statewide race...A lot of my older first cousins it, for them, it was their very first time voting in a state election. And so that really, really drove it home for me. And even though I didn't win in that election, I was still left really inspired by the amount of first time voters that came out, especially within my immediate family. So I think that really, is what drove it home for me."

Prairie Rose Seminole:

"It wasn't so much a moment, just a practice. And I think this is something needed for Indian country as well as actually a lot of the nation we're just kind of disconnected to that practice of being engaged citizens, but voting is something I grew up with. My mom was a poll worker. I started working elections at 16, you know, excited to vote for my first ballot when I turned 18 but I was also working the polls until my early twenties. And then I started working campaigns and issue campaigns and really learning the science behind winning. But it wasn't until my early twenties that I really started to understand that kind of trust relationship with sovereign nations and the federal government and realize the impact that my vote can make a difference."

"So noticing and paying attention to that political landscape of how little engagement happens to Indian country outside of an election cycle. I started working more to get out to Native vote just to say, here's our right. We didn't get this until the sixties. And actually a lot of places didn't get the right to vote until that timeframe. For us in North Dakota, we had to give up our tribal citizenship to vote in an election prior to 1965 or 68, or whenever the voting rights act was right. So how we engage is relatively new and establishing that kind of practice and behavior of community engagement."

"We've been talking about doing a Native American caucus for a while. I mean, we have folks involved with this there's over 40 folks that are involved with this from across the state. All the tribes are represented and some have said we've been waiting 30 years for this. Well, that's my lifetime, right?"

"The value of establishing this space came recently actually with representative Buffalo's election and needing a space for Native candidates and potential candidates and leaders just to be surrounded for us and by us and in a space that gives us that support and that infrastructure that's necessary to do the work that we need to do as leaders in Indian country but as leaders in a state that still carries a lot of anti-Indian-ness, right." 

"But also leaders in the state where the Native voters, I mean, we have to kind of reimagine our own political culture. And I think that's true for a lot of other demographics, but for us, we needed to define that for ourselves. What is our political culture? What is our engagement? How are we finding value in this? And when Ruth and Twyla and I were talking about establishing the caucus again, it was just like, yep, it's time. We need to have the space for us by us. And what are, what are the, the processes moving forward and Ruth got back to me and she was like, well, the policy meeting is like next week. So if we can get this in by then."

Ruth Buffalo:

"Each of us has a responsibility to participate because whether we realize it or not every level of government, the decisions that are being made in those halls or in those arenas, it affects us as tribal citizens, city council level, County commission level, and the state legislature. And so this is really just a way to help engage our communities."

"I drove back last night with my son so I could cast my ballot in our tribal primary election. But you know, I think back to when my late uncle, who used to serve on the tribal business council, he lived in South Dakota for the later years of his life, but he would always encourage us come every tribal election no matter where we were, he would, we'd get a phone call from him and he would encourage us to make our way back to cast our ballot."

"So it's been something that's kind of been I guess you could say a tradition but at the same too we're trying to encourage others to take it a step further and participate in your state elections, the city elections, your County elections. There was an elder woman here who used to go door to door and encourage people to vote. And my mom still has some of the papers that she, the little, the handouts that she made herself encouraging community members here to vote and kind of giving a brief summary of each of the different candidates. And so I think that's so important, that grassroots level the community door to door those relationships. And so we're hoping to see more of that, that community engagement and just really build empowerment and build off of the work that's already happening in our communities across North Dakota. So I agree it's exciting. And looking forward to what's to come."

Twyla Baker:

"Part of the purpose of the Native caucus is to provide a direct connection to Indian country within North Dakota. And had we been in existence at that time, I believe that more people on reservations would have been informed of this legislation that was moving through the state legislature. And without that connection, we were basically blindsided by this law, which is, it was at that time unnecessary because we really had a well functioning system of voting in North Dakota. So the tweaking itself, really, to me, it was in response to the fact that Indigenous people are swing voters in North Dakota. We have the power to change an election outcome in North Dakota. Therefore the powers that be will kinda changed the game on you. And so now with the caucus being here we're able to keep tabs more on what's going on behind the scenes basically."

"We are actively keeping an eye on any type of gamesmanship or any type of changes that might impact Indigenous communities. At that time, even without the caucus, which and I'm thinking about the people that are part of the caucus now, it's the same people that mobilized at that time to get people their addresses get them so that they were eligible to vote because that was basically a dispossession move on the part of the state. And what we want to do is make sure that our inherent right to vote is always present and that those mechanisms."

Ruth Buffalo:

"My hope between now and the election, which is about what, 44 43 days and counting is that we have these conversations within our households, within our communities to mobilize voters. And you know, North Dakota is unique in that we don't have a voter registration but there's still steps that we need to take in order to make sure we're voting safely, we're voting early, and we're voting for the best candidates that are really going to protect our future generations and today voting in your tribal elections. And then also looking at the national elections."

Mary Annette Pember:

"People responded pretty strongly. And I think that the response reflected a couple of things. One that they didn't do a super good job of getting information out to people and transparency. I think the Navajo Nation in particular didn't really have a lot of information available for people. And people responded as though the testing was being forced upon them. And that this was the first time that humans were taking it. All of which is incorrect it's actually offered by Pfizer and AstraZeneca in the nation. And so people can volunteer and they do reimburse you a little bit of money but I think it reflects a couple of things for Indian country. One is the long standing kind of a evidence-based history that we have of being mistreated often by some of these researchers. And also just the general climate. We were getting conflicting information from governmental leadership about vaccine safety and about how to protect ourselves from COVID-19. So it was kind of a perfect storm of suspicion and mistrust."

"I think they tested something for Trachoma on a boarding school, which was an eye disease in the sixties. And I think into the seventies. And what they would do is they would not inform people very clearly. And also there's been more recently, the Havasupai tribe they participated in a DNA test regarding diabetes for Arizona State University. And they found out later that their tissue samples were being used outside of their agreed upon understandings to, I don't know, to test out a whole variety of things. And they were very unhappy about that. And they actually, eventually sued the university and the university settled with them. There also is a history of Native women being sterilized."

"Frequently Native people they don't participate in these drug trials and for a number of reasons, one, I mean, they're often conducted in places where Native people don't live. So it's quite expensive to travel to these areas. Different ethnicities of people have different reactions to drugs and vaccines."

"There's been a lack of data for needed people and people of color in general, for many of these vaccines and drugs. So, you know, they felt that it was really important to get that information." 

Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider. Based in Phoenix, Arizona. Talahongva enjoys hiking, reading and traveling to new places.

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