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Voter ID Laws A Concern In Indian Country


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll take a look at how some Muslims are celebrating a big holiday in big ways. That's in a few moments. But first, imagine if the members of the U.S. Congress got together once a year and spent just one week discussing the issues that were important to their constituents.

Well, that's exactly what happens, annually, at the National Congress of American Indians Convention. It wraps up today. We wanted to get a sense of some of the issues that are most important to Native Americans and Alaska natives so we've called on Jacqueline Pata. She's the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

It's the oldest and largest organization that represents the interests of American Indians and Alaska natives. Jacqueline Pata is the executive director. She's also a member of the Raven/Sockeye clan of the Tlingit Tribe and she joins me now from Sacramento where the convention is taking place. Thanks so much for joining us. I apologize if I just mangled the name of your tribe.

JACQUELINE PATA: You did a pretty good job.

HEADLEE: Well, obviously the next big event in the country is the presidential election, and I understand that one of the top priorities, for your organization at least, has been turning out the Native vote. Why is that?

PATA: Well, because we know that we make key differences in key states, and so we can swing a vote in a tight race, but mostly because we want to be able to make sure that our tribal membership really gets engaged in the political process and makes our voices be heard.

We've seen that has made a big difference in, you know, the members of Congress that get elected if we're engaged and certainly in the presidential elections.

HEADLEE: Well, there are some 5.1 million American Indians and Alaska natives in the country. That's about 1.6 percent of the total population. What are these races, do you think - or states - where the American Indian vote would really kind of swing the direction of the election?

PATA: Well, we've seen, you know, in the past we've seen in Alaska where the Alaska native vote really made a difference in the Lisa Murkowski race. We know that it's made a difference in the Tester race before in Montana. And probably will again this time around in Montana. So we know that those are important.

In Arizona and New Mexico our vote is always an important vote because of the population numbers. But now if we look at the presidential races, we look at Wisconsin and we look at North Carolina and states that are really critical in these elections, that we know that the Native American vote, if we turn out to vote, can make differences.

HEADLEE: In addition to voter turnout, another big issue for your organization and for you has been voter ID. Why are some of these new voter ID laws of particular concern to Indian country?

PATA: Well, because the new voter ID laws, in some states, don't even mention tribal IDs and for us that's really critical. A lot of our tribal members may not have state issued IDs or have a need for a state issued ID. And so states like Alaska and Florida, that have recent voter ID laws and don't mention tribal IDs at all, or they're not an eligible form of ID, causes concern for us in making sure that we're turning out the vote.

In other areas where it's not explicit about tribal IDs or a tribal ID with a photo ID, we want to be able to make sure that that information is shared with our membership. And we're working with the states to make sure that tribal IDs are included.

And then, of course, we're also, on the other hand, working with tribes as they can get the resources to upgrade their ID so they include photos.

HEADLEE: I understand that the representatives from both major campaigns actually attended your convention. What did they say and what did they not say that you wanted to hear?

PATA: Well, yeah. So, you know, we had some representatives from the Romney campaign that were able to come and really talk about why they believe Romney was good for Native Americans. Once again, touting some of the things from the Republican platform like local governments, small governments.

Which makes sense to tribes, because tribal governments are governments and they're local, primarily, and very small. And the Democratic representative was able to really talk about the record of Obama and what Obama has really done for Native Americans in his presidency and the kind of access that he's provided.

I think that, most of all, it's important that both of them recognize the sovereignty of tribes. But it's really important that tribal governments get recognized as governments, and sovereign governments similar to state governments. And so that's an important platform for us and, you know, how that gets represented in forums - like the U.N. forums as we're preparing for the World Conferences Indigenous Peoples in 2014 - how will those presidents represent their relationship with the tribal governments in the United States.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee and I'm speaking with Jacqueline Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. That group's annual convention is wrapping up today in Sacramento.

Well, besides the issue of sovereignty - obviously, that's very important for anyone in the Native American community - but what else are you looking to hear from either one of these candidates? What would you want a U.S. president to focus on that would help Indian country?

PATA: As far as the budget, you know, the country is looking at how do we deal with this fiscal cliff and what are those challenges for us as a country. We want the president and the administration and Congress, quite frankly, to recognize that there's a treaty responsibility. There's a trust relationship.

And for us, giving up our land, that these treaties were created. And so as we look at the budget we want to be able to make sure that tribes are held harmless. That our governments are going to be able to continue. That we'll be able to have the resources for our law enforcement, our public safety, our health care, so that our citizens can still have the basic essential services that are necessary as governments.

We don't have the same kind of revenue generators as other governments do, because of the tax policies, and we want to be able to make sure that we're treated as of the governments in tax policies too.

HEADLEE: Well, I understand also that your group is very focused on getting the Violence Against Women Act passed. Why is that?

PATA: Because that's another example of governments that have limited jurisdiction. So our tribal governments, right now, without this fix of the Violence Against Women Act, does not have jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators in our communities. So if we want to protect our women and our children, we need to be able to enforce the laws within our communities.

And make sure that whoever the violators are, whether they're Native or non-Native, can actually go to our courts and actually go through our systems and to be able to be penalized for the actions that they may take that harm our women and our children.

HEADLEE: Do you feel as though the Native community gets marginalized? Do you think that the community gets ignored or your priorities aren't taken seriously?

PATA: I think, for a long time, that everyone felt that, you know, we are unique and we have this unique relationship. It's not a ethnic relationship, it's a political relationship. And most people don't understand what that is.

And since our numbers are fairly small if you look at the magnitude of the population in the United States, it's easy to be able to say that we're a small, unique community and not really understand that.

So issues like this jurisdiction, issues like essential services and being able to follow up on the trust relationship to ensure that we have safe communities and education systems and health care systems, is really critical. And so it does. And that's why it's so important for our citizens to get out and to vote.

So people really understand, particularly politicians, really understand our message and our voice and that we exercise that. And then, of course, for us, it's really important that we are able to have the kind of public education in our systems. Right now people go to, you know, when they go through the schools as students, they learn about Pocahontas, they learn about Thanksgiving.

But they don't really learn about who tribal governments are in a contemporary way today, and how much we're still part of the fabric of all the governments within the United States.

HEADLEE: You know, I was in Arizona for nearly a decade and did a lot of reporting on the tribes there and there's a lot of them - including, obviously, the massive Navajo tribe - and there was a massive turnout. I mean, they had very passionate voters among native voters. What is the average turnout for native communities or tribes during presidential election years?

PATA: Well, it's always up, like the rest of the country during president election years and we've done some things to try to be able to encourage it, even so. So, for tribal elections, people really turn out in our communities.


PATA: And so many tribe are actually - like Navajo - have actually synced up their tribal elections with the national elections to get better turnout and that's been very helpful.

But we still have areas of concern. We have small villages in Alaska and smaller, more remote communities and access to the voting polls has really been a big deal. So we try to put together to make sure that the tribe has a campaign at the local level, that they're dealing with transportation systems, that they're encouraging early voting, that they're really reaching out to their elders and those that need special assistance to be able to help them make sure that they turn out to the vote.

So we can range anywhere. Like, in New Mexico, the Pueblos had really high turnout rates anywhere to 80 to 90 percent in some of the Pueblos, but then, in some of our communities, it's still very difficult and we're still on the 20, 30 percent range that we're really, really working hard.

We have, you know, about a million eligible voters that weren't registered, and that's a big number for us and so we've been working really hard this year to try to improve registration and really try to get our younger generation to understand their civic responsibility. And so we've worked really hard on civic engagement, democracy classes with Rock the Vote, getting our youth engaged with the vote so that they'll - when they turn of age, they'll actually show up and participate.

HEADLEE: Jacqueline, how do you say go vote on November 6th in your native language?

PATA: We don't have a term for go vote.

HEADLEE: Do you have a...

PATA: We would say - we would say - I'm trying to think of what we would say because, obviously, vote is not a word for us - not one of our words. But we would go to - what I would do and I - now that you brought that up, I need to do that. We would actually go to one of our elders and ask them to help us come up with a word. But we would say something like hagu(ph), which means come here. Those are those kind of commands, you know, to come and do this.

HEADLEE: OK. Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She's also a member of the Raven Sockeye Plan of the Tlingit tribe. She joined us from Sacramento, California. Thank you so much.

PATA: Thank you.


HEADLEE: Just ahead, anti-poverty activist Maurice Lim Miller recently won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his innovative approach to helping people and he says, sometimes, you help by not giving any advice.

MAURICE LIM MILLER: This is about these families. They know their family the best. We need to really trust them and we're going to learn from them.

HEADLEE: Anti-poverty activist Maurice Lim Miller coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.