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'We Need To Do More': A Pawnee Woman Embraces The Power Of The Vote

Hazel O'Neil

Jamie Nelson grew up in the rural town of Pawnee, just north of Stillwater and east of Perry. She is Pawnee and Choctaw-Navajo, and at age 27 she has never voted in a non-tribal, statewide election.

“Now that I’m older, you know, I do see a lot of change that’s going on around our community and within our state. So it seemed like a good time,” Nelson said.

She said she remembers people in her community not being interested in non-tribal politics.\

“I just heard from a variety of people, ‘I don't understand why, there's no point….Our vote really doesn't count based on how the system is set up,’" Nelson said, “So, I just never really had an interest because of that.”

She works for the Pawnee Nation at the Cultural Learning Center in an afterschool program for kids from pre-K to 12th grade. During the program she teaches the Pawnee language, encourages the children to read, and ensures they’ve completed their homework.

Credit Kateleigh Mills / Next Generation Radio
Jamie Nelson, 27, is a youth service coordinator for the Pawnee Nation. She will be voting for the first time in the non-tribal, state election on Nov. 6th, 2018.

The moment Nelson decided to vote was when her friend and fellow Pawnee-citizen, Jasha Lyons Echo-Hawk, decided to run for the Oklahoma House District 35.

Lyons Echo-Hawk is the first Democrat to run against a Republican in the district since Wannetta Cloyd in 2014. She is running against Republican Ty Burns for the seat. In this year’s June primary, Burns won the majority of the vote with 3,510 votes out of 4,808. The seat’s incumbent, Rep. Dennis Casey, has decided not run for reelection even though he isn’t term-limited.

Nelson said Lyons Echo-Hawk would do a good job addressing the needs of both the district and the Pawnee Nation.

“She’s a strong Indigenous woman, but she's also a strong Pawnee woman. So she's really entwined with our culture and our community.”

Recent earthquakes have damaged several buildings on Pawnee mainstreet causing an eyesore in the center of the small town. There has also been a lack of investment, making jobs are hard to come by.

“There isn't a lot of economic development, which can lead to a variety of barriers...and it's something that we always try to talk [about] with our students and our youth, to make sure that they go off and get an education,” Nelson said.

The closest college to Pawnee is Oklahoma State University, 30 minutes away in Stillwater. But even though Nelson and her colleagues do encourage their youth to seek an education, she said there isn’t any way to bring their kids back to Pawnee.

“We don't have any job openings for them, we don't have many placements for them,” Nelson said. “It’s kinda like it’s stagnant or something. There's no growth, there's no flourishment. We're just here.”

Credit Kateleigh Mills / Next Generation Radio
Five war mothers decorate the front window of the Pawnee Nation Cultural Learning Center off of Harrison St. in Pawnee, Okla.

University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie said Oklahoma does not collect hard data on Native American voter turnout in non-tribal elections. He said voter participation surveys have indicated, in general, that Native American voter turnout in statewide elections is lower than tribal elections. This is because those surveyed for voter participation do not identify as Native American.

Some of the towns included in House District 35 are Pawnee, Skedee, Morrison and Prue. The district has about 36,242 civilians according to the 2010 census.

Almost 88 percent of people in HD 35 identify as white, while just above 9 percent identify as Native American and Alaska Native. The Pawnee Nation Enrollment office finds that there are a total of 3,537 Pawnee Nation citizens throughout the United states, but that the majority, 2,175 people, live in Oklahoma.

Nelson also says her first time voting on November 6th will pay tribute to her ancestors. She picks up her students for the after-school youth program around 3:30 p.m., and lets them play outside to get some energy out before walking single-file to the classroom.

“I think the main moment that made me realize I want to vote...we need to do more for our kids, more for our youth, more for our community.”

This story was produced by KOSU's Kateleigh Mills as part of NPR's Next Generation Radio project. KOSU hosted the project this fall, which aims to train the next generation of public radio journalists. Read more about Kateleigh's experience during the project here.

Kateleigh Mills was the Special Projects reporter for KOSU from 2019 to 2024.
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