Far from being 'something else': Native voters wield power in Oklahoma and beyond
Fourteen percent of Oklahoma's voters identify as Native American, according to the United Indian Nations Council of Oklahoma, which means they’re a voting block that could play a significant role in this election.
At the recent "Warrior Up to Vote" rally in Oklahoma City, political candidates, tribal leaders and community members from tribes across the state showed up to hear about who's on the ballot and talk about the importance of their vote in this election.
A table near the stage was handing out buttons, stickers and posters featuring Paulina Alexis, who plays Willie Jack on the hit show "Reservation Dogs" alongside a slogan that read, "Native Power Can't Be Tamed!"
Wicanhpi Echo Hawk said those are the most requested items.
"Definitely the Willie Jack posters and the Willie Jack stickers — everyone's pretty crazy for the Rez Dogs," she said.
Echo Hawk is from the Native Organizers Alliance. She's been registering and educating Indigenous voters in Oklahoma, telling them who's on the ballot while passing out Native-themed voting buttons and stickers.
"A lot of what I've been hearing is people that are really excited that we have these efforts for people to get out the vote," said Echo Hawk. "People are coming up and telling me their stories about their kids who are just turning 18 and that this will be their first time voting.
It’s been happening at events all summer long — powwow princesses, aunties and tribal leaders have been trying to get people to consider voting.
Sara Jane Smallwood-Cocke is the Senior Government Relations Strategist for the Choctaw Nation and an election official in Latimer County. Choctaw and other tribal nations partnered with the League of Women Voters to educate tribal and non-tribal citizens about the election and where to vote.
"I think we're going to see more people turn out to vote in this general election than we have before due to the importance of these issues, especially in our neck of the woods here in southeast Oklahoma," said Smallwood-Cocke.
Choctaw Nation has been delivering voter guides to community centers, and Smallwood-Cocke said the tribal nation is giving people rides to the polls as early voting begins.
Muscogee Nation also participated in get out the vote events. They've partnered with Rock the Native Vote at several events and are part of a non-partisan initiative called Vote Your Values. At the end of the day, said Jason Salsman, the issue for the Muscogee Nation tribal citizens is who is going to work with the tribes.
The growing power of Native voters
For a long time, Native American voters didn't register as a key demographic when analyzing how races are decided.
Native people didn't gain the right to vote in all 50 states until 1962. Their exclusion from the process has meant lower registration rates and participation, and election analysts didn’t really start considering their impact as a group until 2018, but that is changing.
The 2018 and 2020 elections demonstrated the growing power of Indigenous voters. In 2018, a record number of Native candidates ran and won seats in Congress and state legislatures. During the 2020 presidential election, Native American voters were key to swing races in Arizona and Wisconsin, both of which went for Joe Biden.
Gabriel Sanchez studies Native voters for the Brookings Institute. He wrote about what their participation might mean in these midterm elections. He observed that young Native voters were critical in 2018 and that 59% of Native voters encouraged friends to register to vote or get involved politically in some way.
Sanchez said one of the most pressing concerns he's heard is the state of the economy. He said that may affect which party they vote for and has overshadowed some of the social justice issues.
"It's not to say that they're not important anymore, but given that the economy has just trumped everything else and Native Americans have suffered economically more than any other community," Sanchez said, explaining some of the polling he and others have done.
A 2019 study showed tribal nations had a $15.6 billion dollar impact on the state’s economy, accounting for more than 54,000 jobs for Native and non-Native people. That impact has been growing steadily.
Like many, 62-year-old Cheyenne Arapaho citizen Billy Williams is concerned about the economy.
"It costs more to send your kids to school, childcare — everything's going up," said Williams.
But, the ongoing conflicts between Oklahoma's governor and many tribal nations are something he's thinking about as he considers his vote.
"Mainly the protection of our sovereign rights and entering into a compact that all parties can agree to," said Williams, who stresses the importance of having someone in office that can work with tribal nations to help tribal and non-tribal citizens across the state.
Ultimately, Sanchez said, Native voters want someone who is going to protect tribal interests.
"Unlike most Americans that think about it in terms of party — in which party is better for me or my community — for tribal members, it's almost exclusively which candidate is going to do the best to support Native American interests or issues. And so it's not really a partisan lens," explained Sanchez.
In other words, Native voter turn out and how they vote is more about how something will affect the community rather than the individual.
The governor's race
Oklahoma historically has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, so an engaged Indigenous voting base could have a sizable impact.
Many prospective Indigenous voters told us they want people in state government who are going to work with tribes, even if that means crossing party lines. Some feel like tribal sovereignty is on the ballot this election, especially in Oklahoma's gubernatorial race.
Last month, leaders of the state's five largest tribes made an unprecedented endorsement of Joy Hofmeister for governor. They pointed to her respect for tribal sovereignty, willingness to work with tribes on public safety, and her commitment to education.
Incumbent Governor Kevin Stitt is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, but has had a frosty relationship with the tribes since trying to rework decades-old gaming compacts with the state in 2020. He recently reignited that fight by retaining outside legal counsel in an effort to advance contested gaming compacts with four Oklahoma tribes.
Stitt's tense standoff with Oklahoma tribes over gaming compacts, criminal justice, hunting and fishing licenses and taxes has drawn the ire of many, including those inside his own party. During a legislative fight with the governor earlier this year, one Republican lawmaker classified Stitt's behavior toward tribes as "racist and hateful."
The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes, which consists of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw and Muscogee nations, even rescinded a previous congratulatory resolution for his election because the members were "repeatedly disappointed" by the governor.
Stitt's administration has also come under fire over the misspending of pandemic relief funds, accusations of improper pressure put upon the state's pardon and parole board and a scandal involving Swadley's BBQ operating restaurants at state parks.
Smallwood-Cocke, the Senior Government Relations Strategist for the Choctaw Nation, said for the voters she spoke with in southeastern Oklahoma, the Governor's race is top of mind.
"That hits pretty close to home with some of the issues with the Swadley's closing," said Smallwood-Cocke. Popular state parks like Robbers Cave and Beavers Bend are located in Choctaw country, and voters looked at the Stitt's role in the contracts at those parks, she said.
Another issue for voters in this rural part of the state is the quality of education. Stitt supports school vouchers, which would allocate public dollars to parents to spend on private school tuition and other education expenses. Hofmeister calls school vouchers a "rural school killer."
"Rural schools and education is at the top of people's minds — and just having someone that is willing to work with the tribes," said Smallwood-Cocke.
KOSU reached out to a number of voters through GroundSource, our texting tool that engages listeners and readers. We received nearly 100 responses, many that echoed the concerns about tribal sovereignty and education.
"I'm voting early for the first time ever. I'm flying with my mom to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston next week and I was so relieved to see that I can vote this week. This year's election is so important I can't imagine missing it," wrote one voter who said they are voting for Joy Hofmeister for Governor.
Another wrote: "I will be voting on Election Day. Tribal sovereignty is my no. 1 issue, so I will vote for Joy Hoffmeister. [sic]"
And another commented: "I helped my partner get registered to vote and our plan is to meet at our polling place after we both get off work on our way home. We are both Native voters and both feel the importance of voting always but especially this term. We care a lot about Stitt's bad record on Native issues and the negativity surrounding schools. I am a historian and find so much of the rhetoric about schools maddening."
Lillian Thomas, Pearl Chalakee Thomas and Rita Williams represent the group called Muscogee Lady Legends. They volunteer and help people at funerals by cooking food, and have fundraisers for community causes. All have been voting since they turned 18 and say tribal sovereignty is their number one priority in this election.
"Working together, you know, for the good of the people, not just Native people, but for all people in the state of Oklahoma," said Williams.