Sign up for our newsletter
The little talked about Native American vote could play an important role in who wins Democratic primaries in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Colorado on Super Tuesday.
The 2010 Census counted over 5 million Native Americans in the U.S. Although Native Americans have the highest percentage of rural residents of any U.S. racial group, a majority — about 60 percent — live in metropolitan counties. Native American voters swing Democratic and reside in regions of the country that are not reliable Democratic strongholds, like the Great Plains and the Southwest. “American Indian and Alaska Native votes can be a tipping point in these states,” said Kevin, Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians .
The Native vote is not a monolith, and policy priorities vary by community, culture, region, and individual. So does turnout.
Some notable Democrats have found game-changing support went they made Native issues a priority. Native American voters flipped Senate races blue for Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, and former Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
These candidates prioritized specific tribal issues and ran on platforms elevating tribal sovereignty. In turn, Native voters came out. The same may be true Tuesday.
For the 2020 Democratic nominating contest, campaigns and observers will be looking to both rural and urban Native voters in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Colorado to get a sense of trends. Urban Native centers like Denver, Minneapolis and Tulsa will be key testing grounds.
Minnesota- Ojibwe and Dakota Country
Minnesota is home to 11 tribal nations from Ojibwe and Dakota cultures with over 60,000 Native American people living both on reservations and in the Twin Cities. Although Native American people represent around 1% of the total population of Minnesota, Native voters tend to vote Democratic, making them a critical voting bloc in this swing state.
Amy Klobuchar is expected to win her home state of Minnesota. In the Senate, Klobuchar was a reliable vote for Native American bills supported by Democrats, but the Minnesota moderate did not stand out as a die-hard champion for tribal sovereignty.
Last August at the Frank LaMere Presidential Forum, where presidential candidates addressed tribal leaders, Senator Klobuchar prioritized two policy initiatives for tribal communities: infrastructure in Indian Country and addressing the disproportionate effects of climate change on tribal communities.
Klobuchar has garnered the support of Minnesota’s only statewide Native American elected official, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, as well as many tribal leaders in Minnesota like Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin. With the support of tribal leaders and a long history of homestyle politics in Minnesota, Klobuchar could not only win Minnesota but show what an engaged tribal vote means in critical upper Midwest swing states.
Oklahoma- Indian Territory
Oklahoma, also known as Indian Territory, is the modern-day home to 39 federally recognized tribes. The state has the second-highest population proportion of Native Americans (6 percent) of any state in the US, following only Alaska.
Tribes in Oklahoma are known for clashes with the state government over land status and gaming. Oklahomans do have a history of electing conservative Native candidates like Representatives Tom Cole (Chickasaw) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee). Although no one is expecting Oklahoma to turn blue in the general election, Oklahoma Native American voters will have a major impact on this primary.
Oklahoma is the birthplace of Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator. The president’s taunts of Warren’s Native American heritage and Warren’s subsequent DNA test proving her biological ancestry have brought attention to her Cherokee roots with a lukewarm response from Indian Country.
Citizens of the three Cherokee Nations wrote a letter to Senator Warren asking her to renounce her claims of Cherokee and Delaware heritage. Despite this battle over identity politics, Warren has rolled out the most comprehensive tribal platform of all the presidential candidates and has done so with the endorsement of Representative Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) of New Mexico. Haaland is one of the two Native American women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Warren’s plan digs into Indian Country’s most technical policy problems, such as fractionated land holdings, financing hurdles for tribal governments and criminal prosecution of non-native criminals on tribal lands. Warren has drafted the most supportive tribal policy platform in presidential campaign history, but it may not translate into Native votes in Oklahoma because of the complex issues surrounding her heritage.
Colorado – Urban and Ute
Bernie Sanders is the front runner in Colorado and the country. Sander’s tribal policy platform focuses on reestablishing the government-to-government relationship between tribal nations and the U.S. federal government and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Sanders gained traction with Native American activists with his support at the pipeline protests at Standing Rock in 2016.
The 2010 Census found over 104,000 people who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native in Colorado, making up almost 2% of the state’s population. Historically, the Denver metro area has been the main urban center for Native people from the Great Plains region, with 82% of the state’s Native American population living in an urban setting.
While the urban Native vote is most predominant in the Centennial State, Colorado’s Western Slope is also home to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The Native American will also play a role in November’s general election. Swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin have substantive Native American populations that largely stayed home in 2016.
This Super Tuesday will offer Democrats an idea of what Native American voters want and could provide a roadmap for down-ballot races in the Great Plains, the Upper Midwest, and the South.