The cornerstone of our democracy is the right to vote. However, for most of our country’s history, Native Americans have been denied this right. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States, but even after this law, states could restrict the voting rights of native people. It wasn’t until 1962 that Utah became the last state to grant indigenous people the right to vote. For much of the 20th century, until the reform of Indian federal laws in the 1970s, the Cherokees were not allowed to elect the chiefs of their own tribe.
To this day, barriers prevent Indian Country from having our voices fully heard and our votes count. Many Native Americans live in remote rural areas with poor road conditions and no easy way to reach remote polling stations. Many tribal lands have limited access to post offices and non-traditional postal addresses, making it extremely difficult to register to vote or send a ballot. In some cases, the lack of Indigenous language translation during the voting process prevents our Indigenous speaking citizens from voting and further endangers our languages.
Fortunately, new legislation recently introduced in Congress can solve many of these problems. The Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA), co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK, and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-KS, would go a long way in ensuring equal access to the vote across the Indian country.
This bipartisan legislation gives tribes the right to decide where and how many polling stations are located on tribal lands, as well as to require tribal consent before any state or constituency limits our access to voting. This would ensure that tribal ID cards are allowed as an ID to vote, which is already the case in Oklahoma. Additionally, he establishes a Native American Voting Task Force to address the unique issues facing voters on tribal lands.
For too long, these decisions have been made by people who do not understand the history and challenges facing tribal communities. Basically, NAVRA strengthens tribal sovereignty and self-determination on how to ensure that everyone on tribal lands has access to the sacred right to vote.
As the Chief Chief of the Cherokee Nation, I urge Congress to pass this legislation quickly. Our government relations team, led by Cherokee Nation delegate to Congress Kim Teehee, is working with members of Congress to push through this law and ensure that Indigenous voices are heard in every election.
At Cherokee Nation, we work diligently to ensure that Cherokee citizens are registered to vote in elections at all levels and to provide education on candidates and issues. The Cherokee Vote program has registered nearly 14,000 voters since 2013.
We are also proud of our efforts to facilitate voting within our own electoral system. No excuse for postal voting is universally available to Cherokee voters. Last year, I signed a law removing the notary requirements for postal voting. Unlike many states, we do not deny voters the right to vote who commit crimes and carry out their criminal sentences. So, as we urge Congress and states to make it easier to vote, we’ve already set a high standard.
We will not have true democracy until every adult citizen has universal and easy access to the vote. Throughout history our votes have been denied or suppressed, but we would not be silenced. Today we continue to fight for our rights, until everyone in the Indian country can vote freely.
Chuck Hoskin Jr. is the Senior Chief of the Cherokee Nation.