The Struggle For American Indian Voting Rights in South Dakota

Shannon County Vote
In places as isolated as Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, these satellite offices are essential to making voting a possibility for most residents
Last month, the Oglala Sioux Nation filed a voting rights lawsuit with the federal government for failing to put a pre-election satellite voting and registration site on the portion of Pine Ridge Reservation which sits in Jackson County, South Dakota. Despite having money apportioned by the Help America Vote Act to address just this sort of issue, Jackson County has yet to place a satellite office in Wanblee, the largest Indian reservation town in the county. While at the same time, the largely white residential off-reservation county seat of Kadoka, which actually has a smaller population than Wanblee, maintains a satellite voting office. Instead of being able to vote within a reasonable distance of their community, the people of Wanblee have to travel 54 miles round-trip to register and cast their ballots. 54 mile in the cold, inhospitable snow of a South Dakota November on poorly maintained roads that are made of dirt as often as they are asphalt.

These are the sorts of bigotry, harassment and human rights violations faced on a regular basis  by American Indians seeking equal access to the ballot box. The discrimination that they endure is remarkably similar to that of African-Americans and Latinos, but odds are that you hadn’t been thinking about the voting rights of American Indians. In fact, outside of the #ChangeTheName controversy surrounding Washington DC’s professional football team, I doubt that American Indians have crossed many of your minds recently. This may be in part because there are only 1.9 million American Indians in this country and you don’t have much direct interaction with them, but I think it is also because the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the fifties and sixties was almost exclusively an African-American movement.

What happens to an injustice unheard? On their own, many people—along with the local and state governments who represent them—will plug up their ears with cotton balls and blot out the sounds of injustice and oppression that surround them, while others still will hear the wails of injustice and track them down like bloodhounds so they can shove their hands over the mouths of the moaning. That’s why sometimes it becomes necessary for the Federal government to remove the cotton from the callous, cauliflowered ears of the oppressive and the bigoted and demand that they listen.

More so than any other civil right in America’s history, suffrage has required Federal intervention in order to be preserved and it is not a coincidence that the right to vote under the equal protection of the law is the focus of no less than four Constitutional amendments. The first two—the 14th and the 15th amendment—were forged in the fires of The Civil War and established during Reconstruction, a 12 year period where more than 2,000 African-American men held public office in the South. Of course, these political gains were only made possible by the physical presence of former Union soldiers in formerly Confederate towns and as soon as the Republican Party made their deal with the devil in 1877 and agreed to remove those troops in exchange for a Rutherford B. Hayes White House it was all over.

Almost overnight all trace of the black politician was swept away by poll taxes, literacy tests, Jim Crow laws and lynch mobs and black suffrage was suppressed for more than 75 years until the sacrifices of the Civil Rights Movement birthed the Voting Rights Act in an attempt to provide all Americans with equal voting rights and representation in government. Yet, even today, in what a startling number of young Americans consider a “post-racial” society, the percentage of African-American representation in Congress from southern states (11.25%)(1) is still considerably less than it was in 1870 (15%). And all of this was before the Supreme Court disassembled the Voting Rights Act and gave states that were once beholden to the federal government for preclearance of all voting laws free rein to disenfranchise people of color, the elderly and the poor.

There are many aspects of race-based voter discrimination that Chief Justice John Roberts and the other 4 men who voted to neuter the Voting Rights Act (VRA) last year wholly fail to comprehend or care about, but there are none more important than the fact that racism and oppression do not live in a vacuum and that past progress does not prevent against future regression. In his majority opinion for Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts reiterated time and time again the fact that, “things have changed dramatically” in the 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was created and consequently uses those changes as the principle reason why section 4 of the VRA should be struck down(2), as if the law’s efficacy was somehow grounds for rendering it toothless.

In his opinion, Roberts writes that, “the [15th] Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future,” failing to comprehend that this “punishment” is constantly being reinvoked by states and counties who continue to brazenly discriminate against their minority citizens. All a given state or county has to do is follow the VRA’s instructions and not get caught trying to engage in voter discrimination for 10 years in a row and they’re “bailed out” of Section 5. In effect, section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is the equivalent of probation and parole for state and local governments who have committed the crime of denying people of the right to free and equitable elections. If you get released from prison on 2 years parole for selling narcotics and your P.O. Catches you slinging dope, you’re going to be headed back to prison. It’s the same principle with discriminatory states under the VRA.

Of course, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone with even a tenuous grasp on reality that the states who were saddled with preclearance requirements under Section 5—and quite a few that weren’t—have wasted no time in enacting as many restrictive and discriminatory voting laws as possible since the Shelby County v Holder ruling. During the first year post-preclearance, 7 of the 9 states that were singled out under Section 5 of the VRA pushed through laws that restricted voting rights. States are enacting unnecessary and prohibitive voter ID laws, eliminating same-day registrations, purging qualified citizens from voter rolls and, as was recently the case in my home state of Ohio, cutting back early voting days for no just reason whatsoever.

If there is a silver lining to the fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s that it has lit a fire underneath many communities in America and it has directed the attention of the media and activists in ways that could result in enhanced voter turnout, higher political awareness andpossibly the passage of new legislation that makes the Voting Rights Act even more effective than it was before. However, the media coverage of the VRA and the efforts of the vast majority of voting rights litigators and scholars have focused almost exclusively on how the changes effect African-American and Latino voters.

This is certainly understandable considering the fact that they are the 2 largest racial minorities in America and that voter discrimination in both the past and present has impacted them in a greater and more visible way than any other section of American society, but it largely ignores the struggles of other minority groups who will suffer just as much from the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act.

250 years ago, before the prolonged presence of American settlers, the Great Sioux Nation—known to its members as the “Oceti Ŝakowiŋ” or Seven Council Fires—held dominion over most of the Northern Plains.To the east, in what is now modern-day Minnesota, northern Iowa and the easternmost edge of the Dakotas, lived the Santee or Eastern Dakota. Next to them, in the eastern half of the Dakotas were the Yankton or Yanktonai, which are sometimes confusingly referred to as the Western Dakota. And then, beside them, in western portions of the Dakotas and Nebraska lived the Teton or Lakota people.

Within a hundred years time, the Great Sioux Nation had been effectively driven apart by white settlements and white soldiers. To make a long and bloody story short, the second half of the 19th Century was little more than an unbroken string of violated treaties wherein the United States took Sioux land that wasn’t theirs in exchange for the false promise of peace and security on the Sioux land that they planned to take in the future. In the span of roughly 100 years, the Great Sioux Nation had gone from a powerful group of allied tribes that could lay claim to much of the Great Plains to a collection of splintered and suppressed peoples who had been relegated to life on reservations on the parcels of their land that whites could find little use for.

Along with their land, the Sioux—and all of the tribes around them that were not wiped from the face of this earth by the inexorable hand of Manifest Destiny—lost their sovereignty and self-determination. In the days of the Seven Council Fires, the Sioux would hold intertribal councils during the summer months, with a spokesperson from each of the 7 tribes coming together to govern intertribal affairs. Each tribe was made up of several bands and the intertribal spokespeople were usually the chief of the most power band in their respective tribe. Once the reservation system had been imposed on them, the Sioux and all other American Indians(3) and (eventually) Alaskan Natives effectively became wards of the state and were treated as second class citizens in the eyes of the law.

Sioux reservation land from 1851 to today

Even after the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 made all American Indians US citizens and gave them the right to vote under the 14th and 15th amendments, most were still prohibited from voting. Many western states like Montana dealt with the threat of Indian suffrage by adding amendments to their state constitutions and forbidding American Indians on reservations from voting on the grounds that they were not considered taxpaying citizens.

Other states, like Wyoming and Arizona took pages out of the deep south’s playbook and instituted literacy tests as a means of halting American Indian suffrage. South Dakota didn’t even bother with masking it’s blatant bigotry and flouting of the Constitution by keeping a law on the books that prohibited all American Indians from voting until the 1940s, while the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that Indians could be barred from voting because they were, “neither acquainted with the processes of government, nor conversant with activities of the outside world generally.” And, even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many American Indians faced open discrimination from state and local governments until an extension of the VRA was passed a decade later specifying coverage for “language minorities” like American Indians.

In 1975, two South Dakota counties—Shannon County and Todd County—were made subject to preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Both counties had a long history of voting discrimination and institutionalized racism and both were the homes of Indian reservations, with Shannon County containing the Pine Ridge Reservation and Todd County holding the Rosebud Reservation. If you’ve heard of either Pine Ridge or Rosebud before, it probably wasn’t for the best of reasons. Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations are living breathing testaments to the horrors of colonialism and the perpetual poverty that is guaranteed to communities with little-to-no socioeconomic resources. On the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations at least 80 percent of the population is unemployed, as many as 4 out of every 5 adults suffer from alcoholism and/or addiction, infant mortality is 3 times the national rate, suicide rates for youth are 10 times the national average and the life expectancy on Pine Ridge is lower than every other part of the Western Hemisphere besides Haiti.

As is often the case with socioeconomically depressed regions, the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge and the Sicangu Sioux of Rosebud, have experienced some of the most reprehensible attempts to eliminate or weaken their suffrage in America’s recent history. In 1975, long after the equal voting had become the law of the land and black voter turnout was hovering around 50% in presidential elections, the state of South Dakota was still prohibiting residents of almost exclusively Indian “unorganized counties” like Shannon, Todd and Washabaugh(4) from voting in the elections of the counties to which they were attached andprohibited residents of those counties from holding office until as late as 1980.

Shortly after the Voting Rights Act had been amended to cover American Indians, then South Dakota Attorney General William Janklow wrote a formal opinion to South Dakota’s Secretary of State, in which he referred to the Voting Rights Act as a “facial absurdity” and wrote that, “I cannot in good faith recommend that [the Secretary of State’s] office and the State Board of Elections be unnecessarily subjected to the bureaucratic agony of obtaining immediate preclearance of all voting legislation and regulations.”

In other words, South Dakota’s Attorney General just recommended that the state government ignore the requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and hoped it would be repealed by Congress or declared unconstitutional in the near future. It would seem that South Dakota state officials heard Attorney General Janklow loud and clear as they enacted over 600 laws concerning elections and voting in Shannon and Todd Counties that were covered by Section 5 of the VRA between 1976 and 2002 and sent less than 2 percent of them to Washington for preclearance. In the words of former ACLU Voting Rights Project Director Laughlin McDonald, “Many jurisdictions in the South also failed to comply with Section 5 in the years following their coverage. But in none was the failure as deliberate and prolonged as in South Dakota.”

Over the past 30 years, the strategies of predominantly white governments, counties and municipalities in America for negating the impact of minority voting blocs have shifted from outright voter suppression to a more indirect approach. One of the preferred modes of neutralizing the American Indian vote has been voter dilution, a process by which a state, county or local government redraws their districts so as to concentrate as much of the American Indian population into as few districts as possible to lessen number of elections they can seriously effect. After the 2000 census, the South Dakota legislature put forth a redistricting plan that turned District 27, an overwhelmingly Indian district that contains Pine Ridge Reservation, from one of the most underpopulated districts into one of it’s most overpopulated.

To do this,the legislature made a change in the boundary lines between District 27 and District 26, another mostly Indian district that includes Rosebud Reservation, packing District 27 with American Indians and leaving them without a large enough population in District 26 to ensure that Indian-preferred candidates had a chance at winning.

Another way the existing white power structure in South Dakota is trying to disenfranchise American Indians is through the simple act of making it as difficult and inconvenient for them to vote as possible. This tactic, which manifests itself in other states through the enactment of stringent voter ID laws, reduced early voting days and the repeal of same-day registration, is primarily borne out in South Dakota through the failure to provide American Indians with satellite voting and registration offices, using tribes’s socioeconomic shortcomings against them.

Indian reservations are typically located in remote areas and are often self-contained, so that many of the people living on the reservation rarely, if ever, go outside of its borders. Beyond that, many American Indians don’t have access to a car to reach far off polling places and, even if they did, might find they’re unable to scrounge up the gas money to make the trip.

For those who are skeptical, I urge you to take note of the events from the Civil Rights era that come to mind. When I think on it, the images I see are of sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina and bloody marches in Selma, Alabama; I envision Dr. King speaking of his dreams in front of a packed National Mall and I think about the bodies of 3 civil rights workers being buried on a hot Mississippi night during Freedom Summer. At no point do I think about “No Indians or Dogs Allowed signs” in Wyoming during the 1960s or the Occupation of Wounded Knee, because these things aren’t part of our mainstream narrative of civil rights in America.

They aren’t part of our narrative, but they should be. Civil rights movements are not mutually exclusive and there is no cause too remote or removed from our personal experience to be fought. Many of us may not live near a reservation or interact with American Indians in our daily lives, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold ourselves as responsible for their voting rights as we do any other race or ethnicity. First and foremost, voter discrimination is not a southern problem; nor is it an African-American problem, a Latino problem or an American Indian problem. It is an American problem and it’s about time we treated it as such.

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