When Bush appeared before the Unity: Journalists of Color convention two weeks ago and responded to a question about what tribal sovereignty meant in the 21st century with: "Tribal sovereignty means just that; it's sovereign. You're a -- you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity" most of us snickered and filed it away as just another example of what an inarticulate boob he is. But some people bristled on a more fundamental level.
One word caused the most stir.
A five-letter word that George W. Bush uttered 3,000 miles away, one week ago today, at a gathering of minority journalists.
A word that has since raised eyebrows across Indian country, and one that, almost immediately after leaving the president's lips, had Democrats licking theirs:
To many Native Americans -- and Democrats, alike -- the president's answer spoke volumes about what they see as his ignorance of Indian issues. And to many, the operative word in Bush's response was the verb "given."
Native Americans feel that sovereignty is an innate state, an inalienable right; it is not a gift from the great white father. To suggest such a thing is to undermine the ultimate base from which their group identities and rights spring. Gifts can be taken back. It's not a slip of the tongue that can be easily overlooked or ignored.
Bush's verbal slip isn't the only problem Republicans are facing with Native Americans this year. In many ways their problems with Native Americans parallel their problems with other minorities. A certain portion of every minority is rich, culturally conservative, or owns businesses. These sub-groups should be a natural constituency for Republicans. But for over thirty years these voters have given the majority of their votes to Democrats for the simple reason that Republican pandering to racists, religious bigots, and immigrant haters drives them away. The same strategy that made the Republicans the dominant party in the South makes them repulsive to most minorities.
The conventional wisdom is that this will be a very close election. Though some have debated that interpretation, it’s wise for both campaigns to act as if it will be and to contest every vote. The idea that this will be a close vote lends special weight to small, cohesive constituencies. Any move that will grab a thousand votes at a time is better than converting one at a time, but any such move has the potential of alienating another constituency.
Though Native Americans are a cohesive group large enough to tip the balance in any one of a half dozen Western states, any Republican move toward courting their vote runs the risk of offending their core constituency, defensive, white males. Nowhere is this problem worse than in South Dakota.
South Dakota has about 16,000 Native American voters. In the last few elections, the precincts encompassing the Pine Ridge Reservation were among the last to report election results. These were very close elections. As more districts reported, the safer the Republican candidates looked. Then the overwhelmingly Democratic Pine Ridge Votes came in, reversing the results. Tim Johnson was elected to the Senate in 2002 by 524 votes. Stephanie Herseth, won the state's only House seat earlier this summer by less than 3,000 votes. A similar situation removed Slade Gorton from Washington’s delegation in 2000. These last minute reversals did not go over well with the angry white guy voters.
Of Johnson’s election Robert Novak said on Crossfire: "(Republican candidate John) Thune would have been elected to the state's other Senate seat, but the election was stolen by stuffing ballot boxes on Indian reservations.” Despite protests by the Governor of South Dakota and other state Republicans, Novak refused to apologize for his unfounded characterization and even repeated it. National Review repeated the accusation in a long article, making it a permanent part of the Conservative persecution mythos.
The Native Americans' struggle for voting rights in the West in many ways parallels the Black voters in the South. Among my books I have a 1902 geography text that includes a table of voting rights in the 44 states. Many Southern and Western states have poll taxes and literacy tests. Many states exclude felons, duelists, the insane, paupers, and the military from the vote. California excludes the Chinese. Most Western states exclude Indians. Though federal law guaranteed reservation Indians the vote in 1939, many Western states used a variety of tactics to make voting difficult right up to the present day.
When Edna Weddell, a Yankton Sioux tribal elder who gets around with a walker, tried to vote in South Dakota this month, a poll worker stopped her. She had to produce a photo ID first, she was told. Ms. Weddell's granddaughter pointed out that South Dakota law allows voters who do not have an ID with them to sign an affidavit instead, but the poll worker would not budge. Ms. Weddell was forced to retrieve her ID from home before she was allowed to vote.
Last year, after Indians had made the difference in Senator Johnson's election, the Republican-controlled State Legislature passed a new voter ID law that posed a particular hardship for Indians, who often do not have driver's licenses. They were assured that the new law would not present a problem, since it stated that any voter without ID "may complete an affidavit" instead. But many Indians were concerned that poll workers, who are often hostile to them, would ignore that provision.
That seems to be precisely what happened on June 1, and voting rights activists do not believe the mistakes in applying the law were accidental. As evidence, they have produced instructions used in Corson County on Election Day, apparently written by the Corson County auditor, saying: "Some voters are reporting that ID is not required. Please inform the voters that ID is in fact required." South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson insists that county auditors were all properly trained on the new law. In Corson County, "the auditor chose to add some additional instructions," he says. "I don't know why."
That was this June. Other tricks include making registration difficult and inconvenient and gerrymandering districts (useful for limiting Native American influence in state politics, but less useful in national elections). Though in the past, both parties have been guilty of trying to keep Native Americans away from the polls, today it most often the Republicans who do so. Any outreach that they try to make to minority groups runs afoul of their largest constituency, rural White males.
If some of this sounds familiar, it should. For years it has been a standard talking point among Republicans and Conservative talking heads that Democrats can’t win an election based on white males alone. To most of us this sounds as if they are saying that only White males are “real” American voters and women, non-Whites, non-English speakers, non-Christians, recent immigrants, and city folk are “special interests.” When called on it, the talking heads protest that’s not what they meant, they were just sayin’, you know?
Sadly for them we do know. So too do the voters who are not native born, White, male, Christian, English speakers. And that’s the biggest problem the Republican Party faces in the West and elsewhere. Though they like to pull out the red and blue map and crow over how big their part is, the truth is the Republican Party has tied its fortunes to a shrinking constituency.