#NoDAPL has momentum, but will it drive Native Americans to vote?

The World
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation, leads his people to peacefully pray near a law enforcement barricade just outside of a Dakota Access pipeline construction site north of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Oct. 29, 2016.

Standing Rock is all over the news and Native Americans have been mobilizing to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline for months. But has this momentum translated into electoral action?

Sources confirm: It's hard to say.

Mark Trahant is a journalist and professor at the University of North Dakota. He's been reporting on the election, looking at national as well as local races that could impact Native communities in his area.

"It’s really an unknown," he says about whether media attention and the movement of solidarity with Standing Rock protesters can influence Native American voter participation.

"I mean, people are excited, and I’ve never seen Indian Country more focused on something," he says. "It’s really brought people together in an amazing way. How that translates at the ballot box is a real open question."

There are a lot of young Native Americans mobilizing to protest the Dakota pipeline, but Trahant says their civic involvement might end there.

"A lot of young people aren’t seeing this at all in electoral terms when I talk to them," he says. "They see it as a separate issue."

New Mexico-based Laurie Weahkee with the Native American Voters Alliance agrees. Sacred-site preservation and civic engagement are not the same.

But that doesn't mean one can't support the other.

"We actually grow out of a lot of sacred-site fights," she says of NAVA. "The main one we spent a lot of time on was ... in Albuquerque, working to protect the Petroglyph National Monument from being desecrated by two major freeways."

Still, she says she has seen people in her community motivated by the #NoDAPL protests at Standing Rock, but not necessarily motivated to vote.

"We believe that voting is one tool in the toolbox [of civic change]," she says. "That it’s not the be-all, end-all. That there’s a lot of other strategies that must be implemented if we’re going to build a more healthy and vibrant Native community."

New Mexico is the state with the third-highest percentage of Native voters. But NAVA doesn't have clear numbers on Native voter turnout.

"It’s very tough," Weahkee says. "I will tell you that data in Indian Country is horrible, horrible, horrible."

That's due to a combination of unreliable Census data (people can self-identify as any ethnicity) and the lack of a comprehensive record of voter enrollment from counties with Native residents across the country.

The National Congress of American Indians is trying to compile more reliable Native voter numbers.

Jacqueline Pata, NCAI executive director, says historically, Native American communities have had a distrust of the electoral process.

"[In the past,] in order to vote in the federal elections you had to disavow yourself of your tribal citizenship," she says. "Even so much as having to find a way that you are recognizing yourself as, basically, an assimilated Indian."

At one point, Native Americans couldn’t vote at all. They weren’t US citizens until 1924.

And it took even longer for some states to grant Native voting rights. In New Mexico, the right to vote was only granted in 1948.

"Initially [the federal government] didn’t want Native people voting," Weahkee says, "especially in local elections, where the races are much closer."

Native voting rights advocates see local elections as a high priority. That’s where they feel Native Americans have a better shot at protecting their land and getting access to services for their communities.

But Weahkee points out the importance of Native Americans' long relationship with the federal government, which can negotiate tribal rights and determine protected lands.

It’s not clear whether the Standing Rock protests have increased Native voter enrollment. But Trahant, the North Dakota professor, says he definitely hopes they have.

He mentions Washington State Sen. John McCoy, who’s Native American. Trahant says McCoy was recently trying to convince Native millennials to show up at the polls, but they weren't interested in the candidates.

"[McCoy] said get out, off your duffs and go vote," says Trahant. "Even if you don’t wanna vote for the president, look for all the other people you can vote for. And use that power, we’ve fought too hard to let you waste it."

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