In Arizona, these young Native American voters seize their political power
Native voters are powerful, and we can't be ignored anymore. We've shown that.
Young and Native voters could make or break the 2024 election in Arizona for President Biden. Four years ago, both groups helped Biden win the state by just 11,400 votes, making him the first Democratic candidate to carry Arizona in over 20 years.
This year, these voters are expected to not only be influential in the race for the White House but also for control of Congress.
In between, there are young, Native voters deciding how to use their electoral power.
But strategists and politicians familiar with organizing Native voters agree: more needs to be done to court this significant voting bloc.
"Native voters are powerful, and we can't be ignored anymore. We've shown that," said Jaynie Parrish, executive director of Arizona Native Vote. Parrish is part of the Navajo Nation. "And we just need other people to meet us where we are and get on board."
The battleground state is home to 22 federally recognizedNative tribes and nations. The U.S. Census estimates that more than 300,000 people in Arizona identify as Native American. Each tribal government and community, whether it's rural or urban, has its own unique governance, history and challenges to participating in state and federal elections.
"We are fighting against structures that weren't built for us. ... They weren't meant for us there. They were trying to kill us all. We're not supposed to be here," Parrish said. "We're not supposed to be voters."
[Republicans] need to get outside their comfort zone and go out and meet those Americans, those Arizonans in this state.
Organizers say challenges remain with outreach from the Democratic and Republican parties.
Outreach that goes beyond asking for a vote. Arizona GOP state Rep. David Cook said that Native voters are stereotyped as affiliating with Democrats, leaving votes on the table for the Republican Party.
"[Republicans] need to get outside their comfort zone and go out and meet those Americans, those Arizonans in this state," Cook said, whose legislative district borders five tribal reservations. "That one Native American vote on that reservation, no matter what party, is just as important as my [own] vote."
Cook said that he has seen limited attempts to bridge that gap from his party in Arizona, something he sees as shortsighted when many conservative issues could overlap with issues in Native communities.
"Tribal members on reservations have a lot in common with those people that live off reservations in small rural communities," he said. "They want good schools and education opportunities. They want good jobs, but really careers to raise families on. They want good roads and bridges and stuff for their kids. And they want to live in safe communities."
When asked who is responsible for conducting outreach to tribal members, the Republican National Committee told NPR it doesn't have a point person but isrolling out voting resources in Navajo. The Arizona GOP did not respond to NPR's requests about tribal outreach, but there are signs that statewide candidates acknowledge the need to mobilize the community. Kari Lake, a Republican running for Arizona Senate, has a Natives for Kari Lake group.
Democrats have a head start. They formed outreach roles on the national level at the Democratic National Committee, down to the local Navajo County office.
It's going to be a great election year in tribal communities.
Loren Marshall, 38, is the director of campaigns and engagement for Northeast Arizona Native Democrats, a project of the Navajo County Democrats. Marshall, who wasn't registered to vote until 2020, works to get tribal members registered to vote and has put an emphasis on courting young voters.
She said she's encountered pushback from younger voters over not wanting to be active in a system that damaged their communities.
"'Why would we want to participate or get involved in something that just has not been something that we've practiced or something that we've done as Natives'," Marshall said, repeating comments she'd heard.
Still, she said she's confident turnout will be high for Democrats this year, partially due to their focus on community-based organizing.
"We're going to be able to get a lot of folks to come out, and the voter turnout is going to be pretty high," Marshall said. "It's going to be a great election year in tribal communities."
Arizona ranks as the top third state where young voters are most likely to shape the presidential race, according to data from Tufts University, and the top state for young voter impact on the Senate election.
NPR spoke with six young indigenous-identifying Arizona voters to discuss what political parties need to do to win over their potentially election-deciding vote this November.
- Alec Ferreira, 25, San Carlos Apache Tribe, youth program coordinator for the San Carlos Apache Tribe Vice-Chairman
- Lourdes Pereira, 23, Hia-Ced/Tohono O'odham tribe and Yoeme, archivist at Hia-Ced Hemajkam LLC and program specialist for the Administration for Native Americans
- Matthew Holgate, 23, Diné, Navajo Nation, director of student engagement at the American Indian College
- Nalani Lopez, 19, San Carlos Apache tribe and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, student at Scottsdale Community College
- Shelbylyn Henry, 32, Diné, Navajo Nation, lead Navajo organizer with the indigenous organizing group Wingbeat 88
- Xavier Medina, 25, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, police officer with the Pascua Yaqui Police Department
Read more of their conversation below. These responses have been edited for clarity and length.
What do people get wrong about you and your community?
Sitting in a classroom at the Phoenix Indian Center in December, the six voters open up about where they are from. Their tribes, hometowns and reservations span across urban and rural areas and state and country borders.
Ferreira: That there's nothing going on in our community. When in reality, for us in San Carlos, there's so much going on. Whether it be good or whether it be bad. There's a lot of opportunities for our people to grow.
Pereira: I think people, at least specifically with the Hia-Ced, what I've heard is like people just call us Mexicans or like, 'oh, you guys aren't really Native.' And you know, the border crossed us. We didn't cross the border.
Holgate: I think so many times outsiders will come into our communities just assuming that, 'I need to be the voice for you or the savior for you,' when in reality, we have so many educated people and people who are entrepreneurs and pioneers in different areas.
Lopez: People will come onto our reservation to practice shooting their guns because they just think it's empty farmland or they don't know that it's an actual community living there. They just think it's like farmland in between the two cities.
What do politicians get wrong?
The six tribal members all agreed on one overarching theme: politicians on both sides of the aisle haven't taken the time to get to know their communities. They detailed problems with water access, poor infrastructure and fracturing business sectors. Problems they wish they could tell candidates vying for their votes.
Pereira: When they get the opportunity for a photo op, they're just using students to come out and take a few pictures, and that's it. I would rarely get an opportunity to say what I'm doing, and if I did speak, it would be 2.5 seconds and they're gone. They really don't care. But because you're Native and because you're you, they really just want you in the picture.
Holgate: I've also had leaders who have really changed my life because they come, they go to my grandmother's house and they see that she doesn't have running water. ... And I think there's so many politicians who stop at the parade and that's like the most exposure they'll ever have.
Finding their political voice
Whether or not they were old enough to vote in 2020, all six referenced the last presidential election as a defining moment where they felt their voice was heard. Native Americans have only had the right to vote in federal elections for 100 years — a right several reflected was still fought for by their elders for decades after. To these six, the act of voting also honors that past.
Henry: You hear it all the time: 'Vote. Your vote matters. Your vote matters.' And for so long ours didn't. It felt like we had no influence, no power. So 2020 was where everything kind of turned around. And it showed a lot of people, and it showed a lot of us, the potential we have. So ever since then, I keep up with the voting.
Ferreira: I heard a lot of the politicians saying that 'Hey, we need the Native vote.' We didn't necessarily show up in 2016 as much as we should have. ... It didn't feel like it mattered until 2020. That was the first time it felt like it mattered because it was the first time that we decided the election.
Holgate: Voting and politics in general, is more of a family thing for me. ... As an indigenous person ... we're fighting for land, and for water and for natural resources. And it just feels so lonely at times, especially being in an urban setting where most of your friends are non-Native, urban. They have no clue about what we're facing back home or what our families are facing. And that's always a struggle. I think it's a lonely journey, voting and stuff for me.
Local issues stay top of mind
Medina: Something that I have personal encounters with every time I clock in with my job is a huge drug issue. A lot of fentanyl [has] leaked into my community where there's countless overdoses to the point where I'm afraid of running out of Narcan and doing CPR on these subjects.
Holgate: Education's so huge for us in Native and indigenous populations. But I think something that I'm starting to look at now is, how do I empower students from tribal nations in high school to graduate?
Pereira: We are a border tribe. And specifically with Hia-Ced O'odham ancestral territory Aravaipa, which is a sacred spring, was desecrated. We had to actually go back to rebury our ancestors. And it was the most disturbing thing ... these are sacred cemeteries that [former President Donald Trump] blew up with his wall.
Ferreira: The lack of economic opportunities, lack of things for our kids to do and thus leads to more problems right there in itself. Of course, we're just barely scratching the surface of it. But crime is running rampant in my community. It's not something I'm proud of. It's something that's quite scary, to be honest with you.
Choosing a political party? It's complicated
These young millennial and Gen Z voters have experienced both the current Biden and former Trump administrations. They have kept the receipts of what has helped, hurt and not changed in their communities.
Ferreira: Honestly, I am somebody who doesn't necessarily subscribe to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. I fit right in between ... when I hear about these two options. I'm not inspired. I know I probably shouldn't be saying that, but it's the truth. I don't feel like I'm going to make America a better place by voting for one or the other because at the end of the day, we still see the same issues on our reservation.
Medina: Before I was a police officer, I worked in behavioral health, and that had more of a Democratic atmosphere. Now, being a police officer, it's the polar opposite, working in a predominantly far-right conservative atmosphere. It's just like, well, where do I place it? Because both leaders don't adequately express the needs of my people or for myself.
Lopez: I remember, [in 2020,] I would Instagram message people like, 'if you can vote, please vote for Biden,' because I just remember it being such a close election during that time. I wasn't able to vote ... but now for 2024, I'm not super impressed by either candidate. ... They're not really seeing community problems up close and personal.
Will Biden keep their votes?
Despite a hesitancy for Trump, these voters are also unclear on Biden's record. Ferreira was able to link the reopening of a sawmill on the San Carlos Reservation to funds from the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden's landmark climate bill. Still, he called it a PR flop. Pereira said she hasn't seen any change — the border wall, which she also notes has disrupted local ecosystems on Hia-Ced ancestral territory — is still up. Henry expressed disappointment over Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war.
That said, the Biden administration has boasted billions of dollars to Tribal communities from bills and agency projects aimed at COVID-19 pandemic relief, infrastructure, businessand climate. But making that clear is a different challenge.
Henry: Trump is never going to be a choice for me. Biden, it's very much on the scale of closer to no, but it's so complicated... I'm gonna go by actions, not by party, not by who's telling me who to vote for. So it's just going to be a lot more research and keeping an eye open on the news and different news media too.
Medina: As Native people in the room, we have a sentimental part in our environment and making sure our environment is protected... That's what predominantly got me to vote for Biden. Trump, I'm not the most confident of giving my vote to still, but I try to be as open-minded as I can be to this upcoming election, but it's a lot of pressure to choose one side.
Lopez: I think a lot of young voters, once they vote for someone, they'll vote for them, but they won't really keep up with what they're doing. If you just ask a random person like, 'Oh, do you know [Biden's] record?' They're not going to know. I just don't think it's something that a lot of people keep track of.
Pereira: I at least have to acknowledge that with Biden was [U.S. Secretary of the Interior] Deb Haaland. And that was huge for us in Indian Country. Me, just even being a Native woman, that was major.
Holgate: I'm leaning towards President Joe Biden just for the sake of continuing some of the work that we've been able to do... President Trump's office really lacked the voice of Native people, and it felt it was more liaisons. Whereas you see in President Biden's cabinet, there's an actual Native person there who has lived in our shoes or in the place that we know and the hardships.
Ferreira: [Biden] doesn't have everybody's vote. He has a lot of work he still has to do. There is so much work that needs to be done within Indian Country...Nothing's ever a lock. In these past four years, things have gotten a lot more expensive, too. Yeah, Biden has given a historic amount of money to Indian Country, but the cost of everything in this country is a lot more.
A final message to politicians? 'It's our time.'
Holgate: My message to Republicans and Democrats is just to see us and to acknowledge us...Come to our table. Or bring us to your table.
Lopez: I don't like when people come to our communities just to take a quick picture for 30 seconds and go back on their way. I really want people to take the time to listen to what we have to say, especially from the people and community members.
Ferreira: Remember who is running the table right now. It's our time. Native people, we decided at the last election. We can very well decide the next one.
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