Wyoming’s Native American community is more affected by government decisions than perhaps any other group in the state. Yet, low voter engagement among those affiliated with the Wind River Indian Reservation continues to frustrate tribal leaders.
The Wind River Native Advocacy Center — a nonprofit that works to empower Native Americans in Wyoming — has launched an ambitious new program aimed at getting out the native vote in Fremont County. Micah Lott is spearheading the organization’s “Every Native Vote Counts” campaign.
“We’re trying to provide a voice for our reservation and say that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” he said at a campaign-organizing event in Riverton.
They've crafted a multi-pronged strategy to get native voters to the polls. In 2008 Fort Washakie, Luthee, Ethete and Arapahoe produced 1800 voters. In 2016 WRNAC hopes to grow that number to 2000. The bulk of the effort is a door-to-door, face-to-face effort to motivate eligible voters.
“We have our protect your right to vote cards, [we are] canvassing in the populated areas of the reservation - and those are the housing projects where about 50 to 60 percent of our residents live,” Lott said.
Distrust over the voting process is a persistent challenge that WRNAC aims to overcome with accurate information.
“I think that there are, misconceptions about voting. Also I think there are excuses why you don’t vote,” explained Lott.
Of particular concern are widely held beliefs that tribal ID cards don’t qualify for voting — they do; that police will try to enforce warrants and collect outstanding fines at the polls — they won’t; and that convicted felons are forever disqualified from voting — in fact, many can have their voting rights restored. Potential voters are also being told that they can register to vote at the polls on election day.
Lott adds that the biggest obstacle is the Wyoming Native American community’s often-difficult history with state and federal government. “100 years ago we weren’t even citizens of our own country, you know 50 years ago we weren’t even allowed to vote, and then ten years ago Fremont County was found diluting Native American vote,” he said.
Millie Friday serves on the WRNAC board of directors. She’s all too familiar with this challenge and described it this way, “A lot of people are hopeless and it comes through in ‘why should I vote, my vote doesn’t count, it’s not going to change anything’”.
It’s an attitude that Lott hears as well, but refuses to accept. “House district 33 is 65 percent Native American, and so when you have a house district that is majority of a community, then you definitely want to see them represented, especially because we do not have a Native American in either the house or the senate districts right now at this moment. No way is wrong or right, which way they vote or not. We’re not trying to sway anybody into voting [for] a particular candidate or sway anyone to vote in a particular way. It’s totally non-partisan and we’re a non-profit. We’re just trying to get people to vote because I feel like our voice matters collectively,” he said.
Following months of outreach, education, and involvement efforts, the campaign will deliver a final push on November 8th.
“We’re also, for election day, having transportation for all needs. I have four vans, and if they’re in your area they’ll pick you up. We’re also having a celebrate your vote feast and we are giving away 2000 shirts for voters,” Lott said.
Organizers have spoken with 935 potential voters thus far, but they’ll have to wait until November ninth to know if their work has paid off. They’ve already tallied one important victory though. The involvement of tribal youth has been a clear bright spot and a cause for optimism about the future. Fifteen-year-old Juwan Willow is one-such Advocacy Center volunteer. He’s been knocking on doors because, in his words, “We are all, you know, together. We are Fremont County. We are the state of Wyoming. We are the United States of America and most importantly we are a whole of the world. So the more they see that we’re not just the Natives on the reservation, we are one of them, we are their constituents and we’re here to voice our opinions, that’s when they really start listening.”
You can find out more about the Wind River Native Advocacy Center’s efforts to get out the vote at wrnativeadvocacy.org.