Before the 2016 general election, members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes filed suit against Nevada, Washoe County and Mineral County for failing to provide adequate early voting and Election Day polling locations on their reservations.
A U.S district judge found that the lawsuit would likely succeed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and partially granted the tribes’ request, ordering additional early voting and Election Day locations in time for the 2016 election.
Soon after, nine additional tribes, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, similarly asked for additional polling sites on tribal land. For the most part, their requests have been met.
“For the first time in our tribe’s history, our tribal members will have a site on our reservation,” said Stacey Montooth, the community information officer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) and a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “Our leadership understands the importance of the election.”
The RSIC residents of Hungry Valley on the reservation had the farthest distance to travel to vote, a half hour drive both ways. This year, a polling station will be in the valley.
On Nov. 6 Montooth plans to vote on the reservation calling it “historic.”
“I would definitely say the chatter is abundant about the upcoming election. You can look at our tribal lands, at our business enterprise sights, they are just peppered with political signs,” Montooth said.
There are about 500 register voters enrolled in the tribe out of 1,150 tribal members, and efforts to increase turnout have been ongoing. Voting age members of a youth group on the reservation called United Native American Indian Youth have volunteered to work the poll on election day.
“These young people just want to be a part of what we’re doing because it’s important,” Montooth said.
At the polling site on the Walker River Paiute tribal land, which has about 400 registered voters enrolled in the tribe, people have been enthusiastic.
“It’s a big turn out, a lot of people are loving it,” said Shawna Castillo, 35, who is a member of the tribe and a volunteer for the early voting polling site.
Castillo said she volunteered as a way to represent her tribe and leaders and is grateful that the community has the opportunity to work in the polls and on voter outreach, advertising on Facebook, hanging up fliers and driving people to the polls.
“It brings a lot of people together. It makes a lot of people to feel like they do count,” Castillo said. “You know, I was not very big about voting before, but it’s been pretty fun for me.”
In earlier elections, reaching the nearest ballot box involved a 70-mile round trip for members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe.
“Due to socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, homelessness and lack of reliable public and private transportation, and due to the history of racial discrimination and hostility towards [the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe] and [ Walker River Paiute Tribe] members, the significantly greater distance required for them to reach the voting sites will make it substantially more difficult, if not impossible, for them to take advantage of the convenience and benefits of in-person registration, in-person early voting, and election day in-person voting relative to Anglo residents of Washoe and Mineral County,” read the original complaint.
The unemployment rate in Hawthorne, the town closest to the reservation, is 6.7 percent, compared to 24.9 percent in Schurz, on the Walker River Indian Reservation.
In their complaint, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe members pointed out they had to travel 96 miles round-trip to the closest site for voter registration and early voting. Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe members also had to travel 32 miles round-trip for Election Day voting.
Tribal members at the Duck Valley Reservation near the Idaho border in Elko County still face a nearly 200-mile round-trip in order to be able to cast an in-person early ballot, or even to cast an Election Day ballot. Tribal members at the Duckwater Shoshone Reservation in Nye County still must travel 275 miles round-trip to cast either an in-person early ballot or an in-person Election Day ballot in the county seat of Tonopah.
Tribal members can register online at the Secretary of State website. However, many members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and Walker River Paiute Tribe do not have ready access to the internet. Assuming they can gain internet access, they would still face issues with identification requiring a Nevada Driver’s license or a Nevada identification card to register, which many do not have.
Beverly Harry, a native community organizer for PLAN Action and a member of the Navajo Tribe within the Four Corners Region, has worked with her organization on voter outreach among Nevada’s federally recognized tribes.
“We’re actually fighting for the right to vote because not everyone can jump in their car and drive 100 miles to go vote,” Harry said.
Through her work, she registered voters on tribal lands, helped get tribe members trained to work the polls, and worked with tribes to amplify the message that polling places are now available within the center of their communities.
Throughout her efforts, she says she has heard a new enthusiasm about the importance of voting, and the political process, as a means to address issues Native peoples face, from long-standing social, economic and political barriers, to state projects threatening the health of their ancestral lands, to the billions of dollars of federal programs and grants at stake.
“That’s what a community is all about. It’s about knowing each other and sharing issues together,” Harry said. “We share a common goal and that is protecting the lands that we’re on.”
“I think there are still a lot of issues that need to be worked out,” Harry said. “I don’t think the federal government is talking to Native communities, I don’t think the state government is talking to Native communities, I don’t think the county is talking to Native communities, and I don’t think the cities are talking to Native communities.”
Native people in Nevada still face several barriers to voting, and to prosperity. In Nixon, on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, which is classified as 96.4 percent native, 5.7 percent of the residents do not have a vehicle. The unemployment rate is at 26.1 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 4.5 percent. The graduation rate is 72.1 percent compared to the state rate of 84.9 percent. All those statistics tend to indicate low-propensity voters.
Distrust of the government is profound in many tribes. In a recent survey on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, a little more than half the respondents said they trusted tribal government the most. The federal government came in second, at 30.7 percent. Trust in state and county government was substantially lower, at 10.2 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively. Not surprisingly, tribal members are more comfortable conducting business at tribal facilities than at county ones.
“Sometimes in Indian Country one the reasons we hear people don’t want to participate in the American election system is because it’s part of colonization,” Montooth said. “It’s part of what non-natives brought to this country, so there is some resentment. People feel like it is not part of our traditions. But it’s 2018 and we understand the outcome of these races, whether it is the city council or the school board or who’s going to be the Nevada U.S senator. We understand how important they are.”
All indigenous people in the U.S. were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1924 when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and other tribes plan to observe Election Day with indigenous songs played on traditional drums and singing, arranged in a circle where voters will share why they are voting. It’s a way to bring their traditions to the polls with them, Montooth said.