Tribal vote no longer ignored

After generations of being turned away at election booths, American Indians have emerged as a critical voting bloc for local, state and even national political candidates.

A recent example in Washington state was in 2000 when Maria Cantwell credited tribal voters with helping her oust longtime U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. Tribal governments said Gorton’s initiatives would limit their sovereignty. Indian voters here were angry enough to cast their ballots in favor of his opponent.

Since then, according to the National Congress of American Indians, tribal voters have become lucrative assets for candidates who anticipate tight races.

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have both made campaign stops this year at Indian reservations. That’s a big change for Indian voters, who often felt their voice wasn’t valued even after they were legally able to cast a ballot, said experts at the National Congress of American Indians.

Indians were granted U.S. citizenship and the right to vote by the federal government in 1924, but decades passed before states followed suit. In Washington state, Indians were barred from the voting booth unless they paid taxes. That law changed in 1950.

In other states, Indians were barred from voting unless they moved off their reservations or eschewed their traditional ways. New Mexico and Mississippi, in 1968, were the last to extend ballots to Indians.

Today, Washington is one of just a handful of states where national Indian leaders believe tribal voters could swing an election. There are about 120,000 Indians in the state, according to the National Congress of American Indians. That’s only about 2 percent of the state’s population, but in a close race, those votes could make all the difference.

That newfound power has changed election season on Snohomish County’s reservations. The Tulalip tribal government has in recent years rented limousines to escort tribal members to the polls or to register to vote. A rally at the Tulalip Amphitheatre two years ago attracted about 300 Indians from around the state. This year, Tulalip tribal member Theresa Sheldon, the Native Vote coordinator for Washington, gathered Indian voters to watch televised presidential debates in a luxury lounge at the Tulalip Hotel.

Despite the political clout, Sheldon and other Indian voters never forget their tribal identity. On Election Day, when voters nationwide will be glued to television and Web news reports, Tulalip voters will gather at tribal headquarters for a party. There will be traditional dancing, and Tulalip veterans will display tribal colors.

Mail-in ballots will be collected in a box and delivered to the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office. In Tulalip, the important things are done together.

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

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