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A hundred years ago, American citizenship came to Native Americans in swing states without voting rights

SANTA FE, NM – Voter participation advocate Theresa Pasqual crisscrosses the Acoma Pueblo tribal community with a stack of sample ballots in her car and applications for absentee ballots, handing them out at every opportunity ahead of New Mexico’s June 4 primary .

Residents of the pueblo’s original “heaven city,” which endured after the Spanish invasion in the late 1500s, know firsthand the challenges faced by Native American voters throughout Indian Country, where polling places are often hours away and restrictive voter laws and ID requirements only add to the barriers.

It’s been a century since an act of Congress granted citizenship to Native Americans, but advocates say the birthright vote granted in 1924 still hasn’t translated into equal access to the ballot. The disparity is especially pronounced in remote areas of the US and in some key southwestern states with large Native American populations.

New Mexico is trying something new — a test run of sorts for many new and controversial provisions that are part of the state’s Native American Voting Rights Act, which passed last year. The measure promises tribal communities a greater say in how and where they can vote, and even opens up the possibility that tribal offices could be designated as addresses for remote households that don’t have one.

This should help at Acoma, where Pasqual said some residents still live in a village where standard addresses don’t exist.

Native Americans in New Mexico — home to 22 federally recognized tribal communities and holdings of an Oklahoma-based tribe — were among the last to gain access to the right to vote, decades after the U.S. granted birthright rights to the land’s original inhabitants on June 2, 1924 had granted. the Indian Citizenship Act.

That legislation took shape in the aftermath of World War I, in which thousands of Native Americans volunteered to serve in the military abroad.

A patchwork of statutes and treaties already offered citizenship to about two-thirds of Native Americans, sometimes in exchange for land allotments that broke up reservations, gestures of assimilation, military service and even abandonment of tribal traditions. The one-sentence Indian Citizenship Act removed these requirements in an effort to grant citizenship to all Native Americans.

At the same time, Congress allowed state governments to defer who would be eligible to vote. Legal access to the ballot was denied until 1948 under existing constitutional provisions and state statutes in Arizona and New Mexico – and under reservations until 1957 in Utah.

It was by design, says Maurice Crandall, a professor of history at Arizona State University and a citizen of the Yavapai Apache Nation of Camp Verde. Pointing to the largest indigenous populations in New Mexico and Arizona, he said, “They don’t want a large group of indigenous people who can influence elections.”

Fast forward to 2020, he said, and “a lot of people are looking at the indigenous vote as the decision to bring Arizona into the (Joe) Biden camp.”

Biden won Arizona by about 10,500 votes as turnout surged for Navajo and Hopi reservations.

In New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, voting has given Native Americans a path to power amid the political rise of pueblo member Deb Haaland. She became one of the first two Native American women in Congress in 2018 before taking charge of the Interior Department to oversee U.S. obligations to 574 federally recognized tribes.

For the upcoming primaries, Laguna is on the front lines of two Democratic contests, with female Native American candidates competing for the first time in districts redrawn in 2021 to increase Native American influence. In the general election, eligible voters among Laguna’s 8,000 residents will cast their ballots in a congressional swing district rematch between U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez and Republican Yvette Herrell, who lost in 2022 by 1,350 votes. Herrell rarely invokes her Cherokee heritage.

The state’s new Native American Voting Rights Act provides tribal communities with new tools to request convenient voting sites on reservations and secure ballot drop boxes with consultation requirements for county clerks and an appeals process.

But obstacles remain, said Ashley M. Sarracino, chief of Laguna Pueblo, pointing to tensions with county election officials over a decision to withdraw three election voting sites in the pueblo this year, leaving three open.

In Arizona, the anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act is causing frustration among Native American leaders, including Governor Stephen Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community. He has denounced efforts by the Republican National Committee and state lawmakers to revive and expand voter identification requirements through the 2024 general election.

They were two members of the Lewis community who filed a lawsuit in 1928 after being rejected in the election, but the Arizona Supreme Court dismissed their case. The community would not realize voting rights until 1948 – after World War II and the raising of an American flag on Iwo Jima, which included Ira Hayes, who was part of the Gila River community.

During a recent online forum, Lewis counted the years that passed between the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Indian Citizenship Act. He said that for years, elected officials have “made laws for us, about us, but never with us.”

Native Americans have very different views on citizenship and voting, says Torey Dolan, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin Law School and citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Some view American citizenship as incompatible with being an indigenous people; others see it more as dual nationality.

With the passage of the Citizenship Act, many Native Americans feared that the expansion of U.S. citizenship could undermine the special status of trust lands, which allows tribes to make their own decisions about tax-exempt land and protect it from speculators.

“In many parts of Indian Country it was really seen as aimed at breaking down tribal cultures, especially in the Southwest,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, which advocates for the rights and sovereignty of the native Americans.

For some, guaranteeing the right to vote was worth the fight. In 1948, Isleta Pueblo member and World War II military veteran Miguel Trujillo challenged the status quo that prohibited Native Americans in New Mexico from voting by attempting to vote in Valencia County. He was dismissed, leading to a landmark lawsuit backed by Washington-based federal Indian legal pioneer Felix Cohen and the National Congress of American Indians.

A 1956 federal study of indigenous voting in the Southwest found participation to be anemic, with no polling stations established in New Mexico pueblos. In Arizona, Jim Crow-style discrimination began with the widespread use of literacy tests to prevent native speakers from voting until the practice was banned in 1970 under the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 spurred a new movement within tribal communities to encourage participation, said Laura Harris, the Albuquerque-based director of Americans for Indian Opportunity and a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Justice Department oversight of elections in states with a history of discrimination. Since then, several states have passed new voting laws that some legal experts say make it unreasonably difficult for Native Americans to vote, including a flurry of restrictions introduced by Republicans in the wake of the 2020 election.

But in New Mexico, the Sandoval County Clerk’s Office has expanded early voting services to Navajo and pueblo communities in recent years. Only one pueblo declined the opportunity this year. Interpreters in their native language are stationed at each of the locations and are accessible to all residents of the province.

Evelyn Sandoval works with the county attorney’s office as a Native American liaison. She teaches families how to use the newly available tools to register online and receive absentee ballots in the mail.

“I try to make them self-reliant,” said Sandoval, a 54-year-old former oil and gas company employee who grew up in Ojo Encino, a Navajo community of fewer than 300 residents. Her mother spoke only Navajo.

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Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this story from Zia Pueblo, New Mexico. AP writer Graham Brewer contributed from Oklahoma City.

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