Saturday, September 30, 2023



The 2020 Election and the Indigenous Vote

Stakes is High is a term those who grew up in hip hop know well. This now ancient album was a dramatic departure from the normal way that the group De La Soul operated at the time. It was a risk, but one that became influential later. This term was the first line that popped into my head when asked what was at stake in this election for Native People.

New Mexico is one of the few states in the nation with Indigenous peoples populations higher than 10 percent. We fall third behind Oklahoma and Alaska, where Tribal people make up nearly 20 percent of the overall population! We are fortunate in New Mexico to have Indigenous peoples represented in state and county offices. But we are still nowhere near an equal rate of representation. In the broader context of America as a whole, political organizing group Advance Native Political Leadership shared with me a recent study conducted by the Women Donors Network. The study of more than 41,000 elected officials, from county to federal levels, found that 90 percent are white, while only .03 percent are Native American.

Why does this matter? Well, for one, these are seats at tables where the discussion of resources and how they are divided are made. For the longest time, our people were not part of these discussions. It was not until 1948 that Native people in New Mexico were allowed the right to vote. Miguel Trujillo of Isleta began a lasting legacy of Native people in N.M. seeking to be part of this process. This legacy includes today’s Tribal leaders and state leaders like District 65 Rep. Derrick Lente, District 26 Rep. Georgene Louis, recently deceased State Senator John Pinto, his daughter Sen. Shannon Pinto and others. United States Congressional leadership like incumbent Deb Halaand of Laguna Pueblo are the results of the courage to be heard.

Our voice has a very different goal in mind than the average American voter. Usually, the hot button issues you hear played on the news are things like civil liberties, gun control, immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement. A poll of Native American people, the largest ever in the scope of its kind, created by The Indigenous Futures Project, sought out Indigenous voters’ major concerns. The number one response when it came to issues at the forefront of Native voter minds? Mental health and physical health care resources. This was a glaring spotlight on the issues that are impacting Indigenous people currently.

Anathea Chino, co-founder and executive director of Advance Native Political Leadership, had a powerful statement. “We are constantly asking our people to participate in a process that was not designed for us to succeed. We were the last people of color to be recognized and given the power to vote.” State Rep. Derrick Lente put it best during a celebration of Indigenous Peoples day this past Monday. “Please encourage your neighbors, friends and family to vote. Because elections have real consequences and representation matters.” His words were echoed by numerous tribal leaders, some of whom declined to go on record. But when asked, “What keeps you up at night thinking of this election?” Many answered that community healthcare and resources needed to deal with the pandemic are the immediate concerns. Also topping the list: the CARES Act funding that ends in December. These leaders are worried about their communities at the most basic level: survival. Soon, economic issues will begin to squeeze resources in places where tribal businesses have not been able to operate.

So when the rest of America is worried about their guns or their civil liberties, Indian Country is voting just to be heard. Thinking about community health and future generations has always been at the forefront of our system of beliefs, and we try to vote. But at times, it is hard to sift through the messaging and find those candidates that hold those same beliefs or work to help our people. Who can be our best advocate? So many times we are left to choose the lesser of the evils—therefore the reason we need more Indigenous people to take the leap and step into some of these roles. Give our people someone to vote for, who holds our values and represents us with fierce grace.

“Now, more than ever, it’s essential that we all do our part and vote. The COVID pandemic has revealed the gaps in our preparedness as a state and as a nation. And it is through the electoral process that we can ensure that our voice is heard and that public policy reflects the values of our community. Our preparedness over the next few years is being decided in large part on November third at the ballot box,” said Indian Affairs Department Cabinet Secretary Lynn Trujillo by email.

So, this brings me back to my headline. Stakes is High. It’s not just a catchy phrase; stakes are high in this election. Much like that album was a snapshot of hip hop in a space in time; it came to define their new sound. This election will also be a snapshot that frames and defines our communities for the next decade to come. [ ]

Jonathan Sims is the former Tribal Secretary for the Acoma Pueblo.


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