Though the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act granted American citizenship to Native people and provided voting rights (under the law, if not in practice), the community continues to struggle to gain fair access to the polls. Native communities have historically voted at low rates, which has been attributed to a mistrust between Indigenous communities and non-Native people. But recent laws have made the voting process even more difficult. In 2012, Native Americans in Minnesota were credited with the upset victory of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who won her U.S. Senate race by fewer than 3,000 votes. After her victory, Republican lawmakers put up additional obstacles for Native Americans to vote. Since then, other states with large Native American populations have begun to follow suit.
Many Native people living on reservations have been forced to drive outrageously far distances in order to vote. Though some polling places have been approved to be placed on reservations, that’s not the case everywhere. In 2015, research by the National Congress of American Indians found that people living on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada were forced to travel as far as 163 miles to visit their nearest polling station. And distance is just one of many barriers.
“It’s difficult a lot of times for Native women to vote because of poverty, and because they’re often the ones that are in charge of childcare,” said Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. “The amount of time and the amount of resources that it takes [to travel to the ballot box] makes it especially difficult to get Native women to the polls, although they do make an extraordinary effort a lot of the time.”
In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld a controversial voter ID law in North Dakota, which requires voters to show identification with a street address in order to cast a ballot. Since many Native Americans living on reservations don’t have traditional street addresses, they use P.O. boxes in order to retrieve their mail, which meant an inability to vote. Ultimately, the voter ID law garnered legal challenges, and the North Dakota Secretary of State recently entered into a settlement that will resolve some of its harshest impacts.
But on the heels of the 2018 Supreme Court ruling, Ruth Buffalo won her seat for the North Dakota House of Representatives, unseating the legislator who introduced the state’s discriminatory voter ID law. The victory made Buffalo the first Native American Democratic woman to be elected to the state legislature.
“Women have really been stepping up in Indian country to run for office,” De León said. “Additionally, a lot of the ‘on the ground’ people who are fighting to get the vote out are Native women.”