In the August primary, just over 300 people voted on the Hopi reservation, according to elections officials.
That is out of a population of more than 5,000 voting-age Hopis on the reservation, according to the Hopi Enrollment Office.
“We don’t have a good record of turnout,” said Ivan Sidney, a former tribal chair. He’s concerned about the nation’s generally low voter turnout.
There’s distrust of the federal government, and Hopis have cultural beliefs that deter voting, Sidney said. The lack of technology in rural areas makes voter registration difficult, and the long distances to the polls can also prove a burden.
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These factors and more add up to few ballots. It would be easier if tribal and state elections were synchronized, he said. The most recent Hopi tribal general election was in 2021.
“We’re so into our life, lifestyle and culture. Then the elections became so complicated. I wish it could have stayed as a traditional election where we all go on the same day,” said Sidney, who now serves as community service administrator for First Mesa Consolidated Villages, a subdivision of the tribal government.
He also blames low voter turnout on federal and state officials who rarely come out to Hopi communities to engage with constituents.
“We’re losing out because of that,” Sidney said.
U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat who represents the region in Congress, seems to be the only visitor among federal and state elected officials, he said. O’Halleran’s current district, District 1, encompasses 12 tribes. The new District 2, which O’Halleran is competing against Republican Eli Crane to represent, will include 14 tribes.
Sidney said the tribal government could do more to encourage voting. Some Hopis don’t vote because it goes against their community’s traditional form of self-government.
Hopi villages decide how to get members on the Hopi Tribal Council. First Mesa Consolidated Villages, for example, does not elect its tribal council members. The tribal council members are selected by village religious leaders and then certified by the kikmongwi, the village’s religious leader.
Some villages use the same method as First Mesa Consolidated Villages, while others elect their members.
Michael Tenakhongva, a teacher at Hopi Junior Senior High School, said he plans to vote in person on Election Day, but he is aware that many Hopis don’t vote.
“I think there are many reasons. I can only surmise that on Hopi, there may be a feeling from potential voters that their vote will not have an impact on elections,” Tenakhongva said.
Encouraging tribal members to vote, get involved politically
Karen Shupla, registrar for the Hopi Elections Office, said her office urged people to vote by having workers go out into the field to talk to Hopis about the importance of voting.
But, Shupla said, recent efforts were not as aggressive as in the past because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
Turnout among Native American voters was strong in 2020 because it was a presidential year, said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, faculty director of the Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University. She said that some Native Americans don’t vote because they distrust the government, but she hopes that will change.
“It’s important to vote because if you’re not voting, you’re not participating. You don’t have a voice on decisions being made about you,” she said.
Ferguson-Bohnee said federal, state and county officials make decisions on subjects that impact Native Americans. Look at COVID funding and infrastructure spending, she said. “I encourage everyone to participate,” she said.
Maria Dadgar, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, agreed. She said that by voting, Native Americans can impact issues that affect them daily, such as gaming and Colorado River water rights.
Sidney, the former tribal chair, said voter turnout is needed more than ever since the Hopi Tribe lost significant revenue when Peabody Coal left. Peabody operated the Black Mesa coal mine on Hopi and Navajo land for decades until 2005. State and federal officials can help spur economic development.
More young Hopis must get politically involved, Sidney said, so they can work for and advise state and congressional leaders, just as Navajo political staffers have done.
“Navajos work for congressional offices, so federal officials are drawn to their reservation, and we need to learn from that,” Sidney said. “Our people are not educated to learn about the importance and the right to vote. We have a responsibility to our family and children to get involved.”
Reporting voting rights violations
O’Halleran said he had not heard of Native American voting rights violations so far this year, but he wants to ensure those rights are protected.
“People are concerned about it on tribal lands,” he said. “Native American voting rights, like all voting rights, need to be protected.”
Native Americans must rely on tribal and local law enforcement to ensure that none are intimidated on Election Day, Dadgar said. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona has a technical assistance program for Native American voters, including translators for those who only speak their tribal language, she said.
“We had to fight for the right to vote, and that’s another reason to vote,” Dadgar said. Native Americans received citizenship in 1924 but didn’t have the right to vote until 1948, she said.
“Dual citizenship carries a civil responsibility to both,” she said.
Native American voters who have election questions or want to report election issues can call the nonpartisan Native Vote hotline at 1-888-777-3831.