SAULT STE. MARIE TRIBE RESERVATION — I begin with the above quote as the exercise of our voting rights to protect our treaty rights and our tribal sovereignty is a stake. Advocating for our tribal nations and our people through participation in the political process is one of the most important choices we can make. Retired Lt. Governor Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw and former NCAI President) once said that we are not R or D but I for Indian. It is up to each of us to participate in the political process beyond partisanship. At the core of our participation is voting and informing oneself of which candidates will protect our treaty rights. Reinforced through judicial precedence, legislation, and ebbs and flows of Presidential Administrations, the treaty and trust obligation is a dynamic, not a static concept. Our funding is not charity or welfare or even reparations but pre-paid with over 500 million acres of Indian ceded lands. Upholding the treaty and trust obligation is only as real or protected as the next federal election.
It is important to reinforce the importance of voting during this tumultuous time when state legislatures are passing laws at record speed to make it more difficult for all Americans to exercise our right to vote. Early American political activist Thomas Payne once said, “The right [to vote] ...is the primary right by which other rights are protected”. As the last US citizens to be granted the right to vote in 1924, American Indians know best how the act of limiting our rights serves to disenfranchise and marginalize a whole population. Even after women, African Americans and other races, and American Indians were granted the right to right to vote, various legislative efforts at the state level continued limited access to the ballot box. Not until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was enacted did some semblance of a true equal right to vote emerge.
Again, as a dynamic process, our very right to vote is threatened at the state level by disallowing early voting, automatic voter registration, mail in balloting, drop boxes, disallowing rural routes and reservation addresses, and refusing to accept Tribal IDs as legitimate forms of ID. Each of these limitations are proffered as reasonable rational objective standards but make no mistake, the effect is to limit voter participation by the “haves” over the “have nots”. Thomas Payne also said, “To take away this right [to vote] is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives...”.
As tragic as the pandemic had been, a ray of sunshine was the sheer necessity of allowing mail-in balloting and other means to make it easier for Americans to exercise our Constitutional right to vote. During our American history, the resistance to the full exercise of this right through poll tests, creating barriers to voting by limiting voting times, long lines that disadvantage the nine to five working class, and not establishing a paid voting holiday, all serve to maintain the status quo - a system which shields the wealthy to not pay their fair share of taxes, and to reject Great Society- like social programs to aid needy Americans. The true welfare state is the tax inequity of the top one percent, corporate welfare, and subsidies to corporations who pay less in taxes than average Americans. Corporate campaign contributions protect inequities at the expense of average Americans. This phenomenon is strange as Americans are lulled into complacency or brainwashed into believing corporate welfare benefits them through trickledown economics.
HR1 - the For The People Act, was recently approved to address voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics reforms. The John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment would restore elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gutted by Supreme Court conservatives. The Native American Voting Rights Act (a bi-partisan bill) was introduced by Reps. Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk; D-Kan.) and Tom Cole (Chickasaw; R-Okla.), and in the Senate by Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) as a stand-alone bill that will hopefully be included in any final Senate - House voting rights compromise. Senate Republicans are hiding behind the Jim Crow filibuster and unfortunately two democratic US Senators - Manchin (D-Virginia) and Sinema (D-Arizona) - fail to see the historic nature of the need for such reforms. Voter suppression bills in states like Texas are a reaction to large voter turnouts. Sadly, our democracy is in peril while Senators Manchin and Sinema wait for some epiphany. You can be that epiphany for Senators Manchin, Sinema, Murkowski and others. Call them and others who will listen and insist they end the filibuster and vote to enact sweeping voting rights legislation including Native voting rights.
The irony of the very individuals who claim to be “strict constructionists” who claim to support the US Constitution first amendment freedom of speech, are pushing to outlaw teaching legal studies dealing with race and history from a social justice and ethnic minority perspective. Without knowing the history of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, ethnocide of American Indians through the use of small pox, purposeful undercounts in the US Indian Census, and the Boarding School experience representing the first Murdered and Missing Indigenous Persons in mass portions, you would not have a contextual understanding of the lasting legacy of historical and inter-generational trauma as evidenced in the worst of the worst statics in the US Commission on Civil Rights Broken Promises Report. While ignorance is bliss, Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat”. Denying our very history though cognitive dissonance and censorship is untenable. The current boogie man, Critical Race Theory is not a movement but a legal lens that seeks to transform the relationship among race, racism and power and the legal and legislative tactics used to perpetuate subjugation.
This op-ed was written to emphasize that no matter your politics, it is up to informed people to make change and not accept the subjugation of a dominant class over our very right to vote. As the last Americans to be granted citizenship, this point is especially poignant. The demographics of America are changing such that one would think inclusiveness in the political process and appealing to all races would be more important an ideal than to continue to subjugate and disenfranchise a segment of Americans by creating barriers to our right to vote.
A high school dropout at 15, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe Chairperson Aaron Payment, earned a GED at 16 and today holds a doctorate degree in education, and masters’ degrees in education specialist, education administration, and public administration. He serves as the first Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, and President of the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes and the United Tribes of Michigan. Dr. Payment previously served as a Deputy Register to register tribal members to vote in local, state and federal elections.