Arusha Gordon remembers hearing the decades-old stories from her Native American clients about the challenges of voting back then. Polling places were often miles off reservation and located in mostly white towns whose residents were not always welcoming, said Gordon, voting rights counsel for the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law. James Tucker heard the same stories from tribal members who said it was sometimes easier to skip elections completely. Those challenges are a thing of the past say Gordon and Tucker, the voting rights counsel for the Native American Rights Fund. But voting can still be a challenge for Native Americans, who may face language barriers, registration difficulties and a lack of access to polling places and government services that can ease the voting process. “It’s an issue that often gets overlooked,” Gordon said. “They (tribes) never get as many resources directed towards them.”
Voting was still relatively new for Arizona tribes in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson sent his “Special Message to the Congress on the Problems of the American Indian: ‘The Forgotten American.’” The Snyder Act granting U.S. citizenship, and voting rights, to tribes was not passed until 1924 and it was not until 1948 that the Arizona Supreme Court guaranteed Native Americans in the state the right to vote.
Voting records cannot be kept by race, so hard numbers on Native American participation are difficult to come by. But the hurdles to voting are not, say Gordon and Tucker, who point to language as one of the most obvious.
In 2000, Arizona was required under the federal Voting Rights Act to provide bilingual voter registration and voting materials in six differentNative American languages: Apache, Navajo, Pueblo, Tohono O’Odham, Yaqui and Yuman. After 2015, only Apache and Navajo were still required.