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The Roundup

Al Jazeera Stereotypes Rural Oklahoma, Native Americans

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Posted 10.10.12

Native Americans don’t vote because all they care about is gambling.

That’s the basic conclusion of a recent article posted to the English website of Al Jazeera. Writer Ben Piven spoke to eight people in Kay County, in north-central Oklahoma, and determined “finding someone who bothers to keep up with national political developments in this election season is not easy in a vast swath of the ‘Sooner State’.”

He wrote that “locals and visitors alike are sooner [emphasis his] spinning slot machines than pulling the ballot box lever.” But we don’t find that surprising, considering the only places he bothered to visit were the Tonkawa Indian Casino, the indoor pool next door, and a convenience store nearby.

At the convenience store, “a nonchalant young woman” told him, “no one in the area cares for national politics because they’re too far from the centres of power;” only those close to Oklahoma City bother with the business of politics. Another man there, a member of the Tonkawa tribe, told him, “I’m just a country boy. I don’t know about anything like that.”

Piven points out that only half of Kay County’s population of 46,562 is registered to vote (the number is 24,767, according to the State of Oklahoma), and the county went for John McCain by a majority of 71 percent in 2008. But the Obama supporter he spoke to at the casino said he “wasn’t in the habit of voting.” Piven then abandoned his effort to talk politics with the natives and decided instead to delve into the history of gaming in Oklahoma.

“I had no choice but to give up asking about politics, and then did some research on Indian gaming in Oklahoma,” he wrote, noting that “the state has a staggering 114 casinos operated by 33 local Indian tribes,” more than any other U.S. state. As for the state itself, Piven wrote, “…two dozen Native American languages are still spoken there. But this year it looks like neither ‘Obama’ nor ‘Romney’ is being pronounced much in those tribal tongues.”

While, as This Land has reported, Oklahoma has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country—and much of its citizens’ voter apathy could be attributed to its “reddest of the red states” status—coupling a handful of stereotype-perpetuating quotes with some numbers on tribal gaming doesn’t really represent the state’s—or Native Americans’—views on politics.

In fact, tribes are well aware of their power as voters. Plus, they’re mobilizing constituents at unprecedented rates, according to a report by the Native American Times. “Voting advocates are reaching across Indian Country where they have never stretched before,” S.E. Ruckman wrote. “Since early 2012, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) voting advocacy campaign, Native Vote 2012 and the new campaign, ‘Every Native Vote Counts,’ has unleashed an army of voting advocates on the march to turn out the largest number of Indian voters in history.”

Advocates are transporting elders from rural areas of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to registrations sites and plan to do the same on election day—pushing people to not only register, but to vote as well.

One such advocate in Arizona pointed out that, if some Native Americans don’t understand or care much about the issues around the election, it’s likely because tribes are self-governed, and because of that, they’re often “invisible” to national representatives. But voting can change that, she said.

“As its own group, statistics show Indian voters made a respectable showing in 2008,” Native American Times reported. “According to the U.S. Census current population survey, among Alaska Natives and Indians who registered; some 78 percent turned out to vote.”

Tribes appear to be engaged in this election as well. The Los Angeles Times reported late last month that, through the end of July, tribes have donated $2.5 million to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign—“far outstripping their donations in other recent presidential elections.” They’ve given Republican candidate Mitt Romney $750,000.

“The donations highlight a potentially lucrative and, until now, largely untapped source of funds for presidential politics,” the Times reported. “Unlike corporations and unions, tribes can give directly to candidates. And because of their status as sovereign nations, they can donate more to presidential campaigns than individuals, who cannot give more than $117,000 in federal donations every two years.”

The paper reported that tribes already hold a lot of clout in state and congressional elections. Tribes are becoming more involved in presidential politics because they have a lot at stake in the next four years—including “outstanding trust claims, efforts to expand tribal authority over domestic violence cases and regulation of online gambling.”

So, actually, Ben, politics aren’t “off the reservation.”

Holly Wall, News Editor