During the 2020 presidential election, CNN aired a report about an exit poll and referred to Native voters as "something else."
The description did not sit well in Native communities, where leaders said Indigenous votes had swayed outcomes up and down the ballot, helping push Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to victory in Arizona.
But Angela Willeford, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa community's intergovernmental relations project manager, saw a way to use that indifferent label to encourage voters and remind politicians that the Native vote isn’t "something else:" It's powerful.
Along McDowell Road on Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribal lands, three billboards now carry a series of messages. The first one reads #SkoVoteDen, slang for "let's go vote, then." Another billboard looks like the infamous CNN exit poll, with "Something Else" crossed out and "Native American" put in its place. The last billboard reads ‘Don’t Be a “Something Else.” Register To Vote.”
“People need to understand if we 'SkoVoteDen,' we aren’t something else,” said Willeford, who also spearheads the tribe's Get Out the Vote AdHoc committee. “We are tribal communities. We are Salt River. We are Gila River, Ak-Chin, Tohono O'odham Nation. We are a voting bloc, without being a voting bloc. No matter how our community members vote. If we show up, we show our power.”
As Arizona nears the midterm elections, Willeford said getting young voters from the tribe is vital. The idea of #SkoVoteDen was inspired by the popular show "Reservation Dogs," which introduced to non-Native audiences the common Native slang, spoken by the Indigenous characters of the show.
Willeford said about 80,000 young Indigenous adults across the country between the ages 18 and 21, young people who had reached voting age during the pandemic, now need to register to vote.
“Our youth was the main focus,” she said. “I know our seniors vote. If you look at the data, it is typically the ages of 24 to 35 who are not voting. It’s one thing to register them, but to get young voters to vote, it's a whole other thing.”
Willeford and Salt River Pima-Maricopa community president Martin Harvier say they understand what's at stake for tribal communities, especially their own.
“Your vote is your voice,” said Harvier. “And it is powerful. You’re able to express your vote and hopefully put someone into a position that you hope will be your voice.”
Suppressing 'something else'
Although Native voters were labeled as "something else," tribal leaders say a lot of effort has gone into suppressing those votes, with new redistricting maps, and through voter ID laws and a ballot measure known as Proposition 309, which will go to voters Nov. 8.
“Every year there are elected people that are trying to chip away at our right to vote and making it more difficult,” said Harvier. “That is one of the important things, to put the right people in place that support us as a people and recognize us as a people. We have a voice when it comes to voting and putting people into elected positions.”
Proposition 309 would require voters to include either a government-issued ID number, such as a driver’s license or the last four digits of their social security number, and their birthday on their mail-in ballot to prove their identity. Currently, only a signature is required.
For in-person voting, people would no longer be able to present an alternative to photo ID. Currently, a voter can to present two pieces of non-photo identification as an alternative to a photo identification. Those can include a utility bill, vehicle registration, voter registration card, or more. Proposition 309 would require a form of photo identification while voting in person, such as a driver’s license or other government-issued ID.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said this sort of voting measure is another tactic against the Native vote because of how those votes changed the trajectory of the 2020 elections. He said he opposes Proposition 309 because it only makes it more difficult for elders to vote, which Willeford had emphasized were the age group who do show up to cast their ballots.
“To require an ID to cast your early voting ballot is a slap in the face of all people of color, especially Native Americans, especially when some of our elders don't have birth certificates so they may not have IDs,” said Nez. “But they may have a tribal ID, and as a sovereign Nation, our documents should be used as verification.
“It’s a trend now, especially in the battleground states like Arizona,” said Nez. “We had large turnouts last election, some places at least a 60 percent turnout at the polls, at the precinct, and because of that, we Native Americans helped turn Arizona from red to blue.”
Party politics plays different roles among the tribes. Nez has declared his support for the Democratic party, publicly supported candidates such as Hilary Clinton in 2016, and acknowledged his electoral college vote for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in 2020.
Navajo Vice President Myron Lizer has made it known that he is a member of the Republican party, and has spoken at the Republican National Convention in support of former President Donald Trump.
But Harvier and Willeford said they don’t see any reason to discuss which party they are affiliated with. They don’t tell members of their community who to vote for, but they emphasize education and have always invited candidates to to speak to members of Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Being non-partisan is important for the tribal leaders.
“We never actually got behind a candidate or told our community who to specifically vote for,” said Harvier. “We just try to give the information on all the candidates, just educate our members on the candidates and so they may make the personal decision on who to vote for. But we always try to recognize those who support the community and that has always been important, not just statewide but nationally.”
District lines affect voting
Newly redrawn legislative and congressional districts will be used this midterm election, and some tribal leaders believe the lines have been drawn to weaken the Native vote and representation.
Eric Descheenie, director of the recently formed Indigenous Baaja Ádaaní Al Son, which is the first statewide tribal 501(c)(4) political organization in Arizona, said the issue lies with the new Congressional District 2, where Rep. Tom O'Halleran, a Democrat, is running against Republican Eli Crane.
That sprawling district now encompasses 14 of Arizona's 22 federally recognized tribes and has shifted seven points to the right politically based on past voting results.
“It sets Native people back even more in terms of having a fair shot at selecting a candidate of their choice,” said Descheenie. “There are many impediments that exist to voting. This line means Native people are in a position where they don't get to pick a candidate of their choice.”
All of these are issues that Native voters should be aware of, said Willeford, who is hoping that the billboards and the #SkoVoteDen campaign will start the conversation for young Native voters to get educated on the importance of voting.
But the efforts don't stop with just a billboard. Willeford said her group also participate and hold events in the community to get the word out about voting. On the billboard and in other locations throughout the community are QR codes connected to the tribe's voting registration site.
“Midterm elections typically have the lowest turnout,” said Willeford. “But I think this election is unique, because during the pandemic we understood how important the governor is for the states.”
Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective, and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, was in Phoenix during an Indigenous Peoples’ Day event. At the NDN Collective booth, there were fans on their table for people to stay cool, emblazoned with the SkoVoteDen message.
“We have our traditional culture and we have our contemporary slang,” said Tilsen. “I think as a people we uplift our slang because in that slang is our identity as a people. The idea is to close the gap and make voting, and different power building strategies, accessible to our own people so it doesn’t feel like something other people do.
"I’m not a big believer in this democracy. I don't trust the government any more than the next person, but I know that this government in place makes decisions that impact the lives and lands of our people," Tilsen said. "If we have the opportunity to influence who is sitting across the table from us, then I think we need to SkoVoteDen.”