One Man, Many Votes
Native Americans’ struggle with the first freedom
Josephine Waconda’s home is on the Isleta Pueblo reservation. An irrigation ditch flows nearby. The sound of water rushing through the concrete channel is drowned out by the hopeful whinnying of horses in tidy, white-painted pipe pens.
The interior of Waconda's home is comfortable and decorated with rugs and baskets, and the walls are heavy with family photos. One small table in the living room looks like it could collapse from the weight of picture frames and the faces smiling out from them. Many of the photos feature Waconda’s father, Miguel Trujillo, the man who ensured all Native Americans in New Mexico could vote.
Little more than half a century ago, Native Americans living on New Mexico's 22 reservations weren’t allowed to vote in U.S. state or federal elections. Without a ballot in general elections, tribes had limited power in those governments. Native nations in the state had to find creative paths to secure their survival and futures.
There’s been significant progress in the past 60 years. In 2008, the state's seen both the first Native American Democratic superdelegate and candidate for a federal office. In 2006, Voter Assist technology was used for the first time to help people who were more comfortable voting in the Navajo language at the polls. The technology read the ballot (printed in English) and guided voters through a Navajo translation to use a touch screen.
But there have also been setbacks. The same program that put the Navajo language into Voter Assist units has not been able to fulfill the hope that it could assist voters who speak other Native languages. James Flores is the spokesperson for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, which is in charge of the program. Flores says the office doesn't know when there will be money to translate ballots into other Native languages. The money for the program was drawn from the $19 million the state received from the Help America Vote Act, a one-time appropriation.
Another issue Native people struggle against, says Superdelegate Laurie Weahkee, of the Cochiti Pueblo, is that some public officials still seem clueless about Native American members of their constituency. But ignorance to Native issues is nothing new.
The systematic disenfranchisement of Native Americans went unquestioned for a long time. The Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, and as the name implies, it was supposed to convey all the benefits of United States citizenship on Native Americans. In fact, the bill read, “All non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States.” Still, a Native American man or woman living on a reservation in New Mexico (or as the state constitution referred to them, “Indians not taxed”) could not vote.
Native Americans weren’t the only ones denied the right to vote. When the state constitution went into effect in 1911, women were also barred, as were “idiots, insane persons, [and] persons convicted of a felonious or infamous crime unless restored to political rights ... ." However, Natives who did not live on reservations were technically allowed to vote. For most, that would mean leaving their home community and, for many, assimilating into non-Native society.
Native American veterans returning home from World War II were no exception. Young men who were considered capable enough to fight for their country, if they returned to their reservation, still weren’t considered worthy to vote in the elections that shaped the very country they had served.
But one Isleta Pueblo man forced the state to change. Miguel Trujillo, Josephine Waconda’s father, was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. In his post, he saw many young Native American men sign up to ship out, some never to return. Waconda says the experience steeled his resolve to get the vote for all Native people in the state.
It wasn’t until 1948, when Trujillo made the trip from his home in Isleta to register in Valencia County and was denied, that the vote came within the grasp of the original peoples of New Mexico.
Trujillo filled a lawsuit against the state and Trujillo v. Garley, the case that would decide once and for all if New Mexico’s Native Americans could vote, was born.
“I don’t know if he actually planned it,” Waconda says of the historic lawsuit filed by her father, who died in 1987. “He was a person that always felt that Indian people should always be recognized for what they did rather than put aside or shunned because they were Native Americans."
Trujillo had just gotten his bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico when World War II broke out. Like many Native American men, he volunteered to serve his country.
In his position as a recruiter, Waconda says her father witnessed many Native Americans enlist. According to William C. Meadows’ book The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II, Native Americans volunteered for the armed forces at a rate of two for every one drafted during World War II. Another historian, Gerald D. Nash, wrote in The American West Transformed : The Impact of the Second World War that at least 25,000 Native Americans served in the armed forces.
“I think during the war, seeing what was going on, how many Native Americans were joining the service ... I think it just gave him more gumption to go ahead and try to get something done,” Waconda says, adding that her father “was the kind of individual who was always looking for righting a wrong.”
On Aug. 3, 1948, a panel of three federal judges ruled in Trujillo's case: The portion of the New Mexico Constitution excluding Native Americans living on reservations in the state from voting violated the 14th and 15th Amendments. Trujillo won: Native Americans living on New Mexico’s reservations would vote in the 1948 election for president. Democrat Harry Truman won the contest.
But even though Native Americans no longer have to fight for their right to vote, there are other issues that keep their voices from being heard. "We don’t have the numbers of Indian people voting that we could," Waconda says. "There are still people that are either afraid or reluctant to vote.” She says some Native Americans fear voting could lead to the state taking over tribal affairs or have other unforeseen impacts on sovereignty. So, some 60 years later, there are still those on reservations who worry that voting will cost them their homes and way of life.
Like many other groups who speak English as a second language, some Native American people feel more confident voting in their first language. In the 2006 election, Zane James, of the Navajo Nation, was an election coordinator for the Native American Election Information Program (NAEIP) in New Mexico. The program was initiated by former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron during her first term in 1987. James says the office started the program to provide outreach and voter education to Native American communities in the state. Part of his job was to translate elections materials into Navajo. When the state started using the AutoMark Voter Assist machine in 2006, James was the natural choice to voice the ballot.
It took James one week to complete recording the translation, he says. In terms of cost, he adds, “There’s always going to be a cost affiliated with it. From my understanding and my viewpoint, I don’t think the cost was that much." Secretary of state spokesperson Flores says he didn't have an exact estimate for how much it would cost to implement other languages, but that it would be “very expensive.”
Laurie Weahkee is a Cochiti Pueblo woman who isn't afraid to speak up. She's debated Mayor Martin Chavez over the fate of the Petroglyphs on Albuquerque’s Westside. She helped found the Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality (SAGE) Council in 1996 (originally the Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition) and the Native American Voters Alliance (NAVA) in 2002. Most recently, she became the first Native American Democratic superdelegate from the state of New Mexico. When asked to define herself, Weahkee says she’s an organizer doing her best to empower her community.
Her work trying to preserve the Petroglyphs showed her how some politicians treat Native American people’s points of view. “Native people were not listened to on a variety of committees,” she says. After Native American concerns were ignored by the Albuquerque City Council regarding the Petroglyphs, Weahkee says her coalition “saw it as very necessary to get more Native people aware and involved in local politics.” The need to get Native Americans involved in the political process drove the creation of NAVA.
In her work with NAVA, Weahkee has found many unique challenges to organizing the urban Native American vote. For one, Native American people tend to move more often, she says, spending a few years in Albuquerque and then moving back home to reservations around the state.
As a result, NAVA and the SAGE Council have had to get more creative in their outreach efforts. Along with using employment agencies with large numbers of Native clients and flyering at events, Weahkee says NAVA employs other grassroots efforts, such as asking “allied organizations—when they’re out knocking on doors and they run across a family that’s Native American—for them to give a heads-up, if the family wouldn’t mind them turning their name over to us.”
Weahkee says her own motivation to vote comes from her father, Bill Weahkee. “He’d say, If you plan to complain about what’s happening to Indian people or what’s happening to the country, you better vote," she says. "Otherwise, I don’t want to hear you talking about anything.”
Native Americans live all across Albuquerque, says Weahkee. “When we go talk to our local officials, a lot of them don’t know there are quite a few [Native] families that have lived in Albuquerque for 30 years.” She says bloc voting is the most effective way to hold elected leaders accountable. Letting politicians know “you play a role in our daily lives and we expect to be treated as average citizens, we expect to be considered in your decision-making process.” Some politicians seem to be unaware Native Americans even live in their districts, she says.
Native communities have been neglected for so long, she adds, many are used to going without things other U.S. citizens wouldn’t consider going without—such as basic infrastructure like roads and running water.
Weahkee says the rest of the state should be made aware of the realities their Native American neighbors face. “There’s a lot of information missing from the general public’s mind and the general public’s view of what we have to deal with on a daily basis.”
New Mexico's primary elections were held Tuesday, June 3, marking another historic first. Even though he didn’t win, Benny Shendo Jr., a Jemez Pueblo man, made history just by entering the race for New Mexico’s Third Congressional District. “If you look at the history of New Mexico, realize I was the first Native person to run for federal office at the congressional level,” he says.
Matt Keener, public relations officer for Shendo’s campaign, says a major cornerstone of the campaign was building alliances between the progressive and Native American communities. “There was a very natural connection there,” Keener says. He adds that many progressive and Native American issues overlap. Todd Doherty, Shendo’s campaign manager, says, “Native American voters and the progressive voter are minorities" and therefore don't have the strength at the ballot box to make things happen. Native Americans comprise about 10 percent of the state’s population, according to 2006 census figures.
Many people remember Shendo’s campaign primarily for a remark he made that questioned one of his opponent’s sexual preference. How the comment may have impacted the progressive coalitions the campaign was building remains to be seen. He lost, but Shendo's campaign representatives said many politicos were surprised he made as good a showing as he did. They say they’re hopeful his campaign has laid groundwork for future progressive campaigns.
Native people of the Southwest have always been deeply aware of the factors that dictate their survival, from the rain and sun to a shifting policy at the Department of the Interior or a change on the Supreme Court. It's only natural the Native American people of New Mexico be involved in the political forces shaping the legal landscape they occupy.