American Indians and voting

South Dakota has been called “racially hostile” before.

In years past, and even to the present, anti-Indian sentiment has not been hard to find.

Despite some superlative allies and partners among fair-minded non-Indians in the state, there are enclaves where outright racism and the impetus to “keep Indians down” are as strong as ever.

This was, in part, the message heard by the Lawyers’ Committee of the U.S. Voting Rights Commission in recent hearings that took testimony and comments on aspects of the federal Voting Rights Act. Witnesses and members of the panel touched directly on Indian voting rights in South Dakota.

Now that the Indian population of South Dakota has begun to take its place as a voting constituency, situations and procedures are surfacing that tend to discourage Indians from voting. The Indian vote grew dramatically in the past two presidential contests and in recent congressional elections. The new Indian voting factor has made significant differences is razor-thin elections, such as the one that put Sen. Tim Johnson over the top in 2002.

From 2002 to 2005, according to witness O.J. Semans, a voting advocate, Indian voter turnout has increased by 130 percent. Semans is confident that Indian voters are figuring out the notable impact of their growing strength as a voting block. He credited the Voting Rights Act with providing the backbone to make this happen.

The Voting Rights Act, set to expire in 2006, was meant to protect the voting rights of minorities. The commission heard from witnesses that the act was very important, and, as reported by Indian Country Today’s Senior Staff Reporter David Melmer, the “political power of American Indians would be greatly reduced and would, in fact, retrogress.”

This is not a small matter, particularly in a state like South Dakota. With American Indians registering and voting in unprecedented rates, and because American Indians constitute the state’s largest minority population, hostility is present, reiterated panel member Elsie Meeks, Oglala Lakota, director of the Oweesta Corporation.

Richard Guest, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, pointed out that hostile racism is perhaps not intentional but institutionally pervasive. “Fear is part of the system and it is in the institutions,” he said. Former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, also a commission panel member cited by Melmer, said, “There is a good deal of discrimination.”

From the time of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, when the 7th Cavalry got its vengeance for the wipe out of Gen. George Custer’s command by the warriors of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, a general sense of revenge, of keeping the Indians down, has permeated a sizeable portion of the non-Indian people in the state. In the 1970s, killings of Indians by white perpetrators who would get off with light sentences prompted a major Indian protest at Custer, S.D., where the courthouse was burned down. Later, the American Indian Movement Yellow Thunder camp in the Black Hills was named after one murdered Lakota man, Raymond Yellow Thunder.

Among suspicious moves to discourage Indian voting, South Dakota tribal chairmen fought a bill requiring photo identification cards. They saw it as a type of punishment for Indians who voted in favor of Johnson in 2002. The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation recognized the hardship to people for the $5 to $15 photographs required. It offered free photo IDs. In other places, it will definitely discourage people who can’t afford the price and would be unable to get their pictures taken.

Obfuscated new regulations and changes of district lines also raise suspicions. Most notorious was the federal case of the reservation border town of Martin, S.D., which apparently drew precinct lines designed to keep American Indians from winning city offices. In that case, two districts that had majority Indian residents were redrawn so that one district had 90 percent while making Indians a minority in the other. The court ruled against the discriminatory redistricting, and the state of South Dakota was found in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Later, the state was found guilty of being willing to allow counties to redistrict during restricted years. It is a disgrace that such racist practices continue in America.

The fact that Indian voters have clearly supported Democratic candidates, as with Johnson, made fair game of the whole idea for the Republican attack machine after 2002. This powerful spin cycle magnified minor incidents of voter registration drives into an “Indian Vote Fraud Scandal” in national media, condemning rather than celebrating the surge in Indian voting.

We are glad this story on the need to protect voting rights is getting out. The current efforts to discourage blocs of voters, often based on race and ethnicity, need to be exposed, examined, curtailed and then eliminated. The types of ongoing political subjugation of Indian representation in South Dakota are particularly destructive. Congratulations to the powerful and intelligent voices raised by the hearing. Clarity is the antidote on this one.