When Paul Martin got the vote, he didn’t want to miss his chance.
It was 1924, and Martin – like most other American Indians – had just been
made a citizen. On Election Day, he headed for the polls. It was only 80 years ago that Indians won the right to vote.
Poll workers at the Rockport polling place were not pleased to see him, said
Imogene Bowen, Martin’s granddaughter. They said he couldn’t vote because he
was an American Indian.
“He didn’t leave,” Bowen said. “He stayed right there until finally they had
to let him vote to get him out of there.”
Bowen is proud of her grandfather’s stand, but said its equally impressive
that he understood so quickly the importance of this new right.
“This wasn’t anything that was part of our culture, but he was smart enough
to understand that it’s important to vote,” the Upper Skagit tribal member
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act, which
allowed most American Indians to become American citizens and recognized their
right to vote.
It’s a right that, until recently, many American Indians in Washington state
have been reluctant to exercise, said Craig Bill, the director of the state
Democratic Party’s Native American Vote campaign and member of the Swinomish
Historically, less than half of the 100,000 American Indians living in
Washington state have voted in presidential elections, Bill said. On average, about
64 percent of all voting age Washingtonians have voted in presidential
elections held since 1952.
“We’re looking to improve that, to at least bridge the gap between the
historically low numbers to the average,” Bill said.
During the 2000 election, more than 55,000 Indian voters came to the polls to
oust former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
This election, Bill said American Indian voting advocates are hopeful that
more than 65,000 of them will exercise the right they won 80 years ago.
Veterans and the vote
The American Indians who served during World War I returned home to a country
that did not recognize them as citizens.
They had fought for the country, but could not vote for the president, said Lona Wilbur, a Swinomish tribal member and one of 103 American Indian delegates to attend the 2004
Democratic National Convention
“They still signed up and went away to the military,” she said, “and they
were not even citizens.”
It’s an affront not forgotten by American Indian leaders, one that is often
called to mind in election season, Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby
“Native Americans have basically fought in just about any war that the United
States has fought in, and they’ve sent a higher percentage than any other
group to fight for the greatest nation in the world,” he said. “We always remind
people what our veterans and our elders have done.”
Voting rights didn’t translate neatly into political power, and even as
citizens, American Indians continued to suffer abuse from the government.
Among other indignities, American Indian children were forced to attend boarding
schools where, Bowen said, they were to be “civilized.”
Between the 1880s and the 1940s, hundreds of American Indian children were
taken to government boarding schools to be taught English and Western customs.
In an effort to Westernize the students, they weren’t allowed to speak their
native languages or practice traditional religion.
In 1944, Bowen was 10 years old and housed at one of the government schools
when she had her first brush with political power. During a whistle-stop tour
of the country, Bowen said then-Vice President Harry Truman passed through the
“He stopped his train and waved at us,” said Bowen, the former chairman of
the Skagit County Democratic Party.
Over the years, American Indians were able to garner more productive
attention from politicians.
Growing up on the Swinomish reservation near La Conner, Wilbur said her
parents and others always impressed upon her the importance of political
involvement beyond the tribe.
“My father’s father, I remember hearing him say that we’re part of the
community we live in, and we have to give back to the community we live in, but
we’re also citizens of the town and the state,” she said.
Wilbur said as a girl she helped her mother at the polls each year. During
events on and off the reservation, she also met some of Washington’s most
prominent politicians, including former U.S. senators Warren Magnuson and Henry
In Boston this July, Wilbur said she again got to rub elbows with the
nation’s political elite.
There, Wilbur said she met “a whole host of important elected officials,”
including most of the Washington Democrats elected to federal office.
“They said they knew the reason they were in office was because the Native
American people got out the vote,” Wilbur said.
Growing tribal clout
Wooing the American Indian vote can throw some politicians, in part because
members of tribal communities often vote for the same candidates.
At Swinomish, the tribe will deliver an election guide to 160 households near
the tribal center highlighting candidates the tribal government supports,
Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby said.
“We pretty much vote as a block,” he said.
On Election Day, tribal poll watchers will track down members who haven’t
voted to remind them to do so, he said. In part because of that and other
efforts, Cladoosby said between 80 and 90 percent of the tribes’ registered voters
often turn out on Election Day.
“A lot of people take voting for granted because they’ve been able to do it
since the United States was a nation,” he said. “Three generations ago, that
right wasn’t given to us.”
In addition to voting as a block, American Indians predominantly vote
Democrat, said Bill, the director of the state Democrats Indian voting campaign.
Rod Van Mechelen of Conservative American Indian Republicans agreed with
Bill’s assessment — “Indian Country is by and large owned by the Democrats,” he
said. But it might not stay that way.
Van Mechelen, a member of the Cowlitz Tribal Council and Olympia resident,
said he believes most American Indians “are socially conservative people” who
are ready to “reclaim our conservative roots” and vote Republican.
Bowen, who planted signs in her Mount Vernon yard for almost every Democratic
candidate for office in the state, warned against either party counting on
the American Indian vote unless they are prepared to deliver on American Indian
“Neither party should take the tribes as being theirs,” she said. “It
wouldn’t be in their best interest to put the tribes permanently on one side.”
Indian poll watchers
Like many other polling places in Skagit County, the polling places on or
near Skagit County’s reservations will be watched this election.
Poll watchers organized by the National Indian Bar Association will be
stationed at polling places for all of Washington tribes, except for those located
in vote-by-mail counties, said Gabe Galanda, a Seattle American Indian lawyer
directing the election protection effort.
“They’ll be standing adorned in an election protection shirt, on hand to
answer questions or, in the worst-case scenario, intervene,” Galanda said.
“Otherwise volunteers will be there as a sign of solidarity with native voters,
particularly those voting for the first time.”
The poll watchers will be available to assist American Indians and
non-Indians, he added.
Like others voting for the first time, Bill said voting can be disconcerting
to American Indian voters new to the system.
“Many of the misconceptions are second-generation misconceptions,” Bill said.
“You’re talking about a group of people relatively new to voting.”
While registering new voters recently, Bowen said she’s found most are very
enthusiastic about going to the polls. Often, she said they’d take extra voter
registration forms for unregistered friends and relatives.
“When we were going around, people were saying, ‘We want a couple more,'” she
said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to vote.'”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Levi Pulkkinen can be reached at 360-416-2138 or by e-mail at