Seizing Political Power: Young Native American Voters in Arizona

ai express – Young and Native voters have the potential to be the deciding factor in the 2024 election in Arizona, determining whether President Biden will secure victory. In the previous election, these two groups played a crucial role in helping Biden win the state by a narrow margin of 11,400 votes. This historic achievement marked the first time in more than two decades that a Democratic candidate was able to carry Arizona.

This year, these voters are set to play a crucial role in both the presidential race and the battle for control of Congress.

In the midst of it all, there are young Native voters who are grappling with the decision of how to wield their electoral influence.

However, according to strategists and politicians experienced in mobilizing Native voters, there is a consensus that further efforts must be made to engage with this influential voting demographic.

“Native voters have demonstrated their power and cannot be overlooked any longer. We have proven ourselves,” emphasized Jaynie Parrish, executive director of Arizona Native Vote and a member of the Navajo Nation. “It is crucial for others to acknowledge our influence and join us in our efforts.”

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Arizona, a battleground state, boasts 22 federally recognized Native tribes and nations. The U.S. Census suggests that over 300,000 individuals in Arizona identify as Native American. Every tribal government and community, regardless of whether it is located in a rural or urban area, possesses its own distinctive governance, historical background, and obstacles when it comes to engaging in state and federal elections.

Parrish expressed their frustration with the existing structures that were not designed to support their community. They emphasized that these systems were intended to oppress and exclude them, and even posed a threat to their lives. Parrish stated that their presence and participation in society, including as voters, is not something that was originally intended or welcomed.

According to organizers, there are still challenges when it comes to outreach from the Democratic and Republican parties.

Arizona state GOP Representative, David Cook, emphasized the need for outreach efforts that extend beyond mere requests for votes. He pointed out that Native voters often face stereotypes that assume they align with the Democratic party, resulting in missed opportunities for the Republican party to secure their support.

Cook emphasized the need for Republicans to step out of their comfort zones and personally engage with Americans, particularly those residing in Arizona. As his legislative district shares borders with five tribal reservations, Cook stressed the significance of every single Native American vote, regardless of party affiliation. He went on to emphasize that these votes hold the same weight and importance as his own vote.

According to Cook, he has observed a lack of effort from his party in Arizona to bridge the gap, which he believes is a short-term view. He believes that there is potential for conservative issues to align with the concerns of Native communities.

“Tribal members residing on reservations share many similarities with individuals living in small rural communities,” he explains. “They all desire access to quality education and schools. They aspire to secure stable careers that can support their families. They also yearn for well-maintained roads, bridges, and other infrastructure for their children’s benefit. Lastly, they strive to reside in safe and secure communities.”

According to NPR, when asked about the responsibility for conducting outreach to tribal members, the Republican National Committee stated that it does not have a specific individual assigned to the task. However, they are actively working on providing voting resources in the Navajo community. On the other hand, the Arizona GOP did not respond to NPR’s inquiries regarding tribal outreach. Nevertheless, there are indications that statewide candidates recognize the importance of mobilizing the Native American community. For instance, Kari Lake, a Republican candidate for the Arizona Senate, has established a group called “Natives for Kari Lake.”

Democrats are already ahead of the game when it comes to forming outreach roles. They have established these roles at the Democratic National Committee, as well as at the local Navajo County office.

Loren Marshall, 38, currently serves as the director of campaigns and engagement for Northeast Arizona Native Democrats, which is a project under the Navajo County Democrats. Surprisingly, Marshall himself only registered to vote in 2020. His primary goal is to encourage tribal members to register and actively participate in the voting process, with a particular focus on reaching out to young voters.

According to her, younger voters have expressed resistance towards participating in a system that has negatively impacted their communities.

Marshall echoed the sentiments she had heard, questioning the need for Native participation in something that had not been part of their traditions or practices.

Despite the challenges, she expressed confidence in the high turnout expected for Democrats this year. She believes that this can be attributed, in part, to their emphasis on community-based organizing.

Marshall expressed his confidence in attracting a large number of people to participate in the upcoming election, anticipating a significant voter turnout. He emphasized that tribal communities are expected to have an exceptional election year.

According to data from Tufts University, Arizona is ranked as one of the top states where young voters have the potential to significantly influence the outcome of the presidential race and holds the highest position for their impact on the Senate election.

NPR recently had a conversation with six young Arizona voters who identify as indigenous. These voters shared their thoughts on what political parties must do to earn their crucial votes in the upcoming November election.

What do people get wrong about you and your community?

In December, six voters gathered in a classroom at the Phoenix Indian Center to share their diverse backgrounds. They hailed from various tribes, hometowns, and reservations, representing both urban and rural areas, as well as different states and even countries.

Ferreira: Our community is often perceived as inactive, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In San Carlos, there is a vibrant tapestry of events and activities that shape our daily lives. These experiences, both positive and negative, present numerous opportunities for personal growth and development among our people.

“I believe that often, people from outside our communities come in with the assumption that they need to be our voice or our saviors. However, the truth is that we have many educated individuals, entrepreneurs, and pioneers within our own communities.”

Lopez expressed frustration with people who unknowingly use their reservation for target practice. Many assume that the land is empty farmland or simply don’t realize that it is a thriving community. They mistakenly view it as a stretch of farmland between two cities.

What do politicians get wrong?

The six tribal members unanimously expressed a common concern: politicians from all political parties have failed to familiarize themselves with their communities. They highlighted issues regarding water access, inadequate infrastructure, and declining business sectors – problems they yearned to communicate to candidates seeking their support.

Pereira expressed her frustration with how politicians only use students for photo opportunities without truly caring about their concerns. She emphasized that she rarely gets the chance to voice her opinions, and if she does, it is only for a brief moment before they move on. Pereira believes that politicians only want Native students in the picture because of their identity, rather than valuing their perspectives.

Holgate shared that she has been deeply influenced by certain leaders who have had a significant impact on her life. These leaders have gone beyond the surface level and have taken the time to visit her grandmother’s house, where they witnessed firsthand the lack of basic necessities like running water. According to Holgate, many politicians limit their interactions to public events like parades, where they only get a glimpse of people’s lives.

Finding their political voice

All six individuals, regardless of their eligibility to vote in 2020, cited the last presidential election as a significant milestone in which they experienced the empowerment of having their voices heard. It is noteworthy that Native Americans have only been granted the right to vote in federal elections for a century, and it is a right that their elders fought ardently for, persisting through decades of struggle. For these six individuals, casting their vote is not only an exercise of their democratic rights but also a way to pay homage to the sacrifices made by their ancestors.

Henry: The constant refrain is familiar: ‘Vote. Your vote matters. Your vote matters.’ But for a long time, it seemed like our votes had no impact, no significance. However, everything changed in 2020. It was a turning point that highlighted the potential we possess. It showed us, and many others, the power we hold. Since then, I have been actively engaged in keeping up with the voting process.

Ferreira expressed his observations regarding politicians’ interest in the Native vote. He acknowledged that in the 2016 election, Native voters did not participate as much as they should have. However, it was not until 2020 that Ferreira felt their votes truly mattered. This was because it was the first time the Native community had a significant impact on deciding the outcome of the election.

For me, voting and politics hold a personal significance as they are deeply intertwined with my family’s history. As an indigenous person, the fight for land, water, and natural resources is a constant battle. It can often feel isolating, especially when living in an urban environment surrounded by non-Native friends who may not fully understand the challenges our communities face. This sense of disconnect makes the journey of voting and political engagement a solitary one for me.

Local issues stay top of mind

Medina: Every time I start my job, I am confronted with a significant drug problem. My community has been heavily affected by the influx of fentanyl, resulting in numerous overdoses. It has reached a point where I fear running out of Narcan and having to administer CPR to these individuals.

Holgate believes that education plays a significant role in the lives of Native and indigenous communities. However, he is currently exploring ways to empower high school students from tribal nations to successfully complete their education and graduate.

Pereira expressed the deep concerns of their border tribe, highlighting the desecration of Hia-Ced O’odham ancestral territory Aravaipa. They were forced to return and rebury their ancestors, an incredibly disturbing experience. Pereira emphasized that these sacred cemeteries were destroyed by the wall constructed during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Ferreira emphasized that the community suffers from a lack of economic opportunities and activities for children, which inevitably leads to various issues. Although this is just the tip of the iceberg, the rampant crime in their neighborhood is a major concern. Ferreira admitted feeling uneasy and expressed a sense of disappointment towards this unfortunate reality.

Choosing a political party? It’s complicated

Young millennial and Gen Z voters have had first-hand experience with both the current Biden administration and the previous Trump administration. They have witnessed the impact these administrations have had on their communities, taking note of what has been beneficial, harmful, and unchanged.

Ferreira: To be honest, I don’t really align myself with either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. I find myself somewhere in the middle when it comes to these two options. I must admit, I’m not particularly inspired by either. I know it might not be the popular opinion, but it’s the truth. I don’t believe that voting for one or the other will truly make a difference and improve the situation on our reservation.

Medina used to work in behavioral health before becoming a police officer. During that time, she experienced a more Democratic atmosphere. However, as a police officer, she finds herself in a predominantly far-right conservative environment, which is a complete contrast. This situation leaves her feeling conflicted as neither leader effectively addresses the needs of her community or herself.

Lopez recalled how in 2020, she used to reach out to people on Instagram, urging them to vote for Biden in the closely contested election. Although she was unable to vote herself at the time, she felt strongly about the importance of participating in the democratic process. However, looking ahead to the 2024 election, Lopez finds herself less than impressed by the choices presented by the candidates. She believes that neither candidate truly understands the challenges faced by the community on a personal level.

Will Biden keep their votes?

Although these voters have reservations about Trump, they are also unsure about Biden’s track record. Ferreira was able to connect the reopening of a sawmill on the San Carlos Reservation to funds from Biden’s groundbreaking climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. Nevertheless, he considers it a public relations failure. Pereira mentioned that she hasn’t witnessed any significant changes, as the border wall, which has also disrupted local ecosystems on Hia-Ced ancestral territory, remains standing. Henry expressed his disappointment with Biden’s approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The Biden administration has allocated billions of dollars to Tribal communities through bills and agency projects focused on COVID-19 pandemic relief, infrastructure, business, and climate. However, effectively communicating this support poses a unique challenge.

Henry expressed his opinion on the presidential candidates, stating that Trump is not a viable option for him. As for Biden, he feels closer to a “no” but acknowledges that the decision is not as simple as party affiliation. Instead, Henry plans to base his vote on the actions of the candidates and will conduct thorough research while keeping an open mind to various news sources.

Medina, a Native person, emphasized the significance of protecting the environment as a driving force behind their decision to vote for Biden. Although not fully convinced about giving their vote to Trump, Medina acknowledged the importance of being open-minded in approaching the upcoming election amidst the pressure to choose one side.

Lopez believes that many young voters tend to vote for a candidate without necessarily staying informed about their actions and accomplishments. According to Lopez, if you were to ask a random person about their knowledge of Biden’s record, they would likely be unaware. This suggests that a significant number of individuals do not actively keep track of political developments.

Pereira expressed her acknowledgement of the significant presence of Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, during Biden’s administration. As a Native woman herself, Pereira considered this representation to be a major milestone for the Indian Country.

Holgate expresses his inclination towards President Joe Biden, emphasizing the importance of continuing the progress made for Native people. He highlights a significant difference between the two administrations, stating that President Trump’s office lacked the authentic representation and voice of Native people, relying more on liaisons. In contrast, President Biden’s cabinet includes an actual Native person who has firsthand experience and understanding of their challenges and hardships.

Ferreira believes that Biden cannot take everyone’s vote for granted. He acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done within Indian Country. Ferreira emphasizes that nothing is guaranteed in politics. He also points out that over the past four years, the cost of living has increased significantly. While Biden has provided a substantial amount of funding to Indian Country, Ferreira highlights that the overall cost of everything in the country has risen as well.

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A final message to politicians? ‘It’s our time.’

Holgate wants to deliver a message to both Republicans and Democrats, urging them to acknowledge and recognize the existence of people like him. He encourages politicians from both parties to engage with the community and include them in their discussions and decision-making processes. Holgate emphasizes the importance of being seen and heard, either by inviting them to the table or by joining their own table.

Lopez expresses her dislike for individuals who visit their communities solely to snap a quick picture and promptly depart. She emphasizes the importance of taking the time to truly listen to their stories and perspectives, particularly those of the local people and community members.

Ferreira reminds us to remember who is currently leading the way. It’s our turn now. As Native people, we made our decision in the last election, and we have the power to determine the outcome of the next one.

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