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Despite Barriers And A Pandemic, Arizona's Indigenous Voters Influenced The Election

Associated Press | Larry Price

Indigenous voters across the country were instrumental in the 2020 election. In Arizona, President-Elect Joe Biden won the election by a slim margin of just over 10,000 votes. Precinct data shows that Indigenous communities in Arizona played a role in flipping a state that voted for Republican presidential candidates in nearly every election since 1952.

First Nations people have historically faced many barriers to voting, including the fact that they were kept from that right until after the passage of the 1924 Citizenship Bill. It wasn’t until the 1960s that all 50 states allowed Indigenous people to vote.

Raina Roanhorse is a Native American Outreach Specialist with the non-profit Instituto. She spent months documenting 2020's elections in Arizona’s tribal communities. What she found was a wave of voting efforts: from curbside voting on Hualapai land, to political debates between Navajo members on Facebook.

Roanhorse spoke with KNAU’s Angela Gervasi about why many Indigenous people turned out to vote, even amid a crushing pandemic:

AG: What do you think made this election such a galvanizing time for people to head to the polls or mail in their ballots?

RR: As people are becoming more aware of the systemic failure in the federal government and the tribal government ... they're realizing the need for change.

People are looking at the elected leaders. They're looking at some of the legislation that has been passed. And they're saying, “Hey, wait a minute. This isn't necessarily benefitting us and our community. And so, this has to change.”

Systemically, there [have] been failures across the board. And I think Native people have really felt this because of the COVID impact to the community. ... When your basic needs aren't met. When you don't have water. When you don’t have electricity.

When our tribe decided to close the chapterhouses down in response to the pandemic. People who were getting their water at the chapterhouse and obtaining, this is drinking water, water for their animals and they're hauling water on a daily basis

And all of a sudden, people are saying, "OK. I can't even get water to my home and my family. There's something wrong."

AG: What are some barriers people living on tribal lands might encounter when it comes to voting?:

RR: I think it's challenging especially for tribal people in rural communities when there are limited resources ... you know, not having gas money. Not having transportation or a car or a ride.

Getting the ID is a difficult thing to get sometimes when you don't even have a birth certificate. Securing childcare for your kids. ... We have tribal members, a lot of them are working hours away from where they live.

And when you have 20 bucks in your pocket, it becomes a matter of, you know, “Am I gonna use this 20 bucks to pay for gas to go vote today? Or am I going to keep the 20 dollars and make sure that my propane tank is filled up for next week?”

AG: What kind of message do you think it sends to these leaders when they see a higher voter turnout in local elections?

RR: People care. Bottom line, people care.

One of the things that I’ve been seeing, especially in our Navajo tribal community, I've been seeing a lot of posting of legislation that is proposed on Facebook. ... But the thing is, it's getting people engaged in conversation and rhetoric and saying, “This is why I think this is a good idea." "This is why I think this is a bad idea.”

When you look back at the history of voting especially for Native people. ... It's significant for Native people to realize and understand ... There [is] a history there of not being able to vote.

And so to think back, 70 years ago, We weren't even considered citizens. I mean that’s huge for me.

That's why our grandparents and people who are 65 and older. They go to the polls. ... When it's election day they're out there and voting, because they know the importance. They know the significance.

That's why it's encouraging to hear: "Wow, look how far we've come, and look at the fight that it took to get there." And when you realize that that came at a cost and a sacrifice, it makes you appreciate that more. So it makes you want to go out and vote and really to represent your people and let your voice be heard.

Raina Roanhorse is a Native American Outreach Specialist at Instituto.

This interview excerpt has been condensed for brevity.