Paying Attention to the Native American Vote

Political analysts say the presidential race this year could easily be swung by Native voters in battleground states with high Native populations, such as New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Colorado, but only if effective outreach has been made to Native communities.

During the primaries, for example, Senator Obama visited the Crow reservation in Colorado to give a campaign speech. When the votes were in, Crow precincts reported higher turnout then the rest of the state. In the end, Obama won the state with 91 percent of the vote.

“If you speak to those people, they will remember and they will come out to vote,” says Russ Lehman, professor at Evergreen State College and the author of the 2004 and 2006 Native Vote Report commissioned by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

“The opposite is true as well. If you don’t, you give those voters very little reason to come out and very little reason to be a part of the process,” Lehman says.

There are 562 federally recognized tribes spread across America but Native Americans make up only 1 percent of the population. As a voting block, Native Americans were the last group in the U.S. to get the right to vote — in some places as late as the 1960s — and American Indians are the only ethnicity that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track when it comes to election data.

This leaves organizers and campaigns at a disadvantage when trying to find and reach Native Americans and make sense of them as a new voting block.

Read and watch more here on FRONTLINE.

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tristan ahtone

Tristan Ahtone is an award winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona and raised across the United States, he was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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