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Felix Clary
ICT + Tulsa World

TULSA, Okla. — This year is the 100th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act, yet tribal leaders and advocates say too many Natives are still hesitant to vote.

For the past two decades, Oklahoma’s voter turnout rate has been around 55 percent. Fourteen percent of Oklahoma’s population identifies as Native American, with two of the largest tribes being Muscogee and Cherokee.

Less than 20 percent of Muscogee Nation citizens were registered to vote this year as of June 1. In 2021, the Cherokee Nation estimated that 45,000 Cherokee citizens were registered to vote, a significant increase over previous years but still amounting to around 150,000 Cherokee citizens not registered to vote in the state.

“In Oklahoma, Natives are still living with historic trauma. There is still a lot of mistrust with federal processes. The tribes here lived through boarding schools, removal from our homelands, and so many things.” said Ginny Underwood (Comanche) from Rock the Native Vote.

Rock the Native Vote is one of many Native voting campaigns in Oklahoma. Underwood said that in the years she has campaigned for Native adults to register in local, state and federal elections, she has seen voter anxiety in Native people centered around mistrust for state and federal governments.

“Maybe we’re jaded, and rightfully so, but we need to help people understand that if we show up in numbers, it can have positive impacts, like getting elected officials that support tribal sovereignty,” Underwood said.

Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes said in an ICT interview that the Warrior Up and Vote campaign expresses an even stricter message than Rock the Native Vote.

“We need to look at it like, ‘What is at stake when we vote? What bills do we want passed?’ We need to make sure people we elect on state and national levels truly understand what sovereignty means,” he said.

Voting is still 60 years young for Native American citizens, according to Randy Knight, a Cherokee law student at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

The Indian Citizenship Act gave Native people the right to U.S. citizenship, but it wasn’t until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act that all Native adults and other racial minorities had the right to vote.

Knight also said it wasn’t until 2019 that the Native American Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress, giving tribes the ability to increase polling sites and expand the types of facilities they use for voter registration.

The act states that there is a wide gap between the voter registration and turnout rates of eligible Native citizens and non-Native citizens.

It says that Native voter access is obstructed by nontraditional addresses for residents on reservations, as well as “a lack of accessible registration and polling sites, either due to conditions such as geography, lack of paved roads, the absence of reliable and affordable broadband connectivity, and restrictions on the time and place that people can register and vote.”

The act posed the solution of annual consultations between tribal leaders and the Department of Justice to resolve voting related issues.

“I think there are some tools we’ve been given in the last four years that can help with Native voter turnout, and I think we’ll start to see the fruits of that in this 2024 election,” said Knight.

He said that engaging in voting is a form of assimilation, but one that is necessary at this point in history. Since NAVRA and the recognition of tribal sovereignty through the McGirt decision, he said “we’re seeing right now how important it is for people to engage in the system, whether they like it or not, because one of the ways to change the system is to engage with it.”

Oklahoma tribes have also made efforts in the past four years to increase Native voter registration.

Cherokee Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. is hopeful that the next generation of Cherokee citizens will be more engaged in voting.

“We have to identify the issues in terms of public policy and connect them to politics,” he said. “From here forward, Cherokees are particularly motivated to have a governor of Oklahoma who is respectful to tribes and won’t be hostile.”

A recent issue that Hoskin has discussed is Stitt’s attempts to dismantle tribal tag agencies. For Hoskin, this is a threat to tribal sovereignty, fueled by Stitt’s concern for state toll tag profit loss.

Knight warned that while youth, Native or non-Native, may be passionate about political issues, that doesn’t mean they will vote.

“You see the young generations get all riled up for an election, and they seem really engaged, but that doesn’t always turn into voter turnout,” he said.

The Muscogee Nation has worked to diagnose voter apathy in the tribe for the past four years, looking for a remedy. Spokesman Jason Salsman said the most common symptom of voter apathy is feeling invisible.

“You see a lot of politicians being critical of the McGirt decision. They don’t really see things from a Native perspective. That can make you feel like you are not being heard, and sometimes make you feel like you’re invisible in your own state,” Salsman said. “Well, this is subscribing to a false mentality. We have to get people to understand that if they go to the polls, you can let your voice be heard.”

He said Native people in Oklahoma have learned a lot about resilience and enduring spirit in the past 100 years. He believes one of the biggest lessons they have learned is what it means to be a citizen of a sovereign Native nation while also a U.S. citizen.

“When people say we have to walk in two worlds, that is what they mean. It’s not easy. It’s not a simple reckoning inside your soul. We’re still fighting for people to understand and respect us in 2024,” he said.

Correction: This story originally misstated the number of eligible voters among Cherokee Nation citizens in Oklahoma. The story has been corrected.

This story is co-published by the Tulsa World and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Oklahoma area.

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