July 16, 2004
American Indians are using the anniversary of a historic court ruling to spur tribal members to vote.
The campaign, Native Vote 2004, is designed to incite greater awareness by Indians of their legal rights to participate in selecting local, state and federal officials.
Vivian Juan-Saunders, chairwoman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, said on Thursday at ceremonies in Phoenixthat Indian turnout needs to be higher.
She said what makes the effort particularly important is that it took until July 15, 1948, for the Arizona Supreme Court to acknowledge that Indians are entitled to vote, even though Congress had granted them citizenship decades earlier.
"We cannot allow the sacrifices of our elders in the past to go unheard," Juan-Saunders said.
Gov. Janet Napolitano helped the effort with an official proclamation of July as "Arizona Indian Right to Vote Month."
But the governor conceded her interest is more than academic.
She said that if Indians had not voted in unusually high numbers two years ago, Republican Matt Salmon likely would be state governor now.
That high turnout, though, was due largely to measures on the ballot to grant new gaming rights to tribes.
Juan-Saunders said it’s not a question of a lack of interest in having a voice in government.
"Our people turn out for tribal elections," she said.
Now, she added, tribal leaders need to convince their members of the importance of having input beyond the reservation as so many issues, like health care and education, are controlled by higher levels of government.
"Our goal is to help educate our people that they need to be involved in the process and they are a part of this democracy," she said.
"When you’ve been systematically left out and told that you don’t belong for over 200 years, that creates that lack of participation that we desperately need," Juan-Saunders added.
In 1928, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Indians could not vote here. The justices based their ruling on state law that prohibited voting by "mental incompetents and people under guardianship," concluding that American Indians were under federal guardianship.
It was only a new lawsuit by two members of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, returning World War II veteran Frank Harrison and tribal chairman Harry Austin, that resulted in the state’s high court overturning that ruling in 1948.
But it took another two decades to remove other barriers put in the way of tribal members, including a state law that required that someone be able to write and read the state constitution without prompting in order to register to vote.
Those restrictions were struck down by amendments to the federal Voting Rights Act in 1970.