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Fighting for the Right to Vote

November 7, 2016

One in ten New Mexicans is Native American, meaning our state’s population has the second-highest percentage of Native citizens in the country. But despite the strong and vibrant presence of Indigenous people across the state—from the Navajo Nation in the northwest to the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Mescalero Apache Reservation, and of course our nineteen Pueblos—New Mexico was one of the last states to extend voting rights to all the Native Americans living within its borders.

President Coolidge

President Coolidge stands with four Osage Indians at a White House ceremony.

This discrimination dates back to New Mexico’s original constitution, which was adopted in 1911 as the territory prepared for statehood. Article 7 noted that because people didn’t pay taxes on sovereign land, residents of reservations were “Indians not taxed.” For decades this logic that those who didn’t pay property taxes didn’t deserve representation was used to prevent Native Americans from casting a ballot in local, state, and federal elections.

In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, explicitly extending all the rights of citizenship to Native Americans “born within the territorial limits of the United States.” While this was an important step for Indigenous people across the country who were wrestling with questions of identity and voice, it left a loophole for states who were motivated to keep them from participating in politics.

The loophole: since reservations are sovereign land governed by tribes, some states determined them to be outside U.S. “territorial limits.” New Mexico was among these states, and continued to bar those living on reservations from registering as voters for another 24 years after the Indian Citizenship Act was signed into law. Officially the Pueblo people were American citizens, but they were nevertheless blocked from casting ballots alongside their compatriots in towns and cities.

Miguel Trujillo

USMC Miguel Trujillo of Isleta Pueblo with his daughter Josephine T. Waconda in the late 1940s.

Things finally changed after World War II, during which tens of thousands of Native Americans volunteered for the armed forces and fought for the U.S. overseas. One such veteran was Miguel Trujillo of Isleta Pueblo, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Upon returning, Trujillo attempted to register to vote in Valencia County only to be told by the county registrar that he was ineligible because he lived in the Pueblo of Isleta.

This insult to his people and specifically to veterans was intolerable to Trujillo, who took the county to court. In the case Garley v. Trujillo, the ruling in his favor finally extended the full rights of citizenship to all American Indians in New Mexico, regardless of where they lived.

The 2016 election therefore comes less than 70 years after the courts declared that all Pueblo people can vote for the president of the United States. Since the Pueblo Nations along with our fellow tribes constitute 10% of the state’s population, we have the power to play a major role in New Mexico’s politics—as long as we get out there and exercise our hard-won right to vote.

Obama, Tribal Law and Order

President Barack Obama at the Tribal Law and Order bill signing ceremony on July 29, 2010, an example of the evolving relationship between the U.S. government and Native American tribes and citizens. He is surrounded by leaders from the Chippewa Cree Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Cherokee Nation, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara.

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