Recognizing the power of the Native American vote

Story written by Robyn Feinberg and Tsanavi Spoonhunter
Video created and produced by Jaimie Hayes and Caroline Southfield

The legal voting age in the United States is 18 years old. Victoria Kane, staff member at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center (RSTHC), did not vote until she was sixty-one.

“The first two times I ever voted in my whole life was for Obama, and that’s really sad…that’s the first time I ever felt included,” Kane said.

Kane is a tribal member of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) and has lived on and off the reservation throughout her life. The election in 2008 was the first time she felt compelled to vote at the federal level. The sense of importance that Barack Obama placed on the Native vote made her finally feel as though she had a voice, and that it did matter.

“When I see a candidate that recognizes diversity, I really look at that because then you know that their mind isn’t only focused on who’s giving them money and funding their campaigns,” Kane said. “Their focus is on that they have a heart for what they are doing and the people that they serve. That’s one of the main things as a Native person, a senior, and as a woman that I look for — a candidate’s ability to see and interact and do a lot with a diverse population.”

Kane shared her views just before the Nevada caucuses, held on Feb 20 and Feb. 23. Notorious for being a swing-state, the state finds itself in a very important position once again.

This is a situation in which every single vote counts.

In The Most Valuable Voters of 2016, The Atlantic highlighted the valuable presence minority voters are playing in the 2016 election, and have played in previous elections: “Though the pace of demographic change across these states is is steady rather than sudden, the cumulative effect, particularly of growing racial diversity, can be profound.”

This means that white voters are no longer the only voters who count.

As a result, more efforts have been made by candidates to involve minority voters, such as the Native community in Northern Nevada as well as greater Nevada, in the upcoming caucus.

Jaynie Parrish, of the Navajo nation, was working for the Hillary Clinton campaign at the beginning of 2015 to reach out to rural Nevadans. More specifically, she was working with Native American communities.

Over the years the Native American vote has been low. Just last year, the RSIC tribal members average voting rate was 27.96 percent. Both Kane and Parrish believe that this is a result of the disenfranchisement that the Native community has felt compared to the rest of the United States.

“We’ve always had to fight for our right to vote, had to fight for polling location sites. I mean it’s been a system where we’ve systematically been left out,” Parrish said. “That can be shown all over the country where you have the Voting Rights Act. There was a reason for that.”

Parrish also explained that community members are beginning to understand that they are a group to be recognized. She points out that there have been plenty of examples within the last five years that the Native vote has made a difference and the candidate they voted for was elected.

“It really made a difference [and] got somebody elected, somebody that was an advocate for Indian issues or understood Indian issues,” Parrish said. “With tribes you really just need to get to know the community members and… to understand what’s going on and care about the issues and care about how this is going to impact the community.”

This is similar to the realization Victoria Kane had, as she began to understand that what happens at the federal level does impact tribal communities, such as funding for where she works.

Although Kane speaks for herself and knows that she cannot speak for all Natives, she will continue to vote because she sees how the process will affect her and her community. Her voice matters, and she will use it.

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