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Voting in Indian Country

Voting in Indian Country uses conflicts over voting rights to understand the centuries-long fight for Native self-determination, using ethnographic data and weaving together history, politics, and law to provide a robust view of this often-ignored struggle for social justice.

Voting in Indian Country
The View from the Trenches

Jean Reith Schroedel

2020 | 312 pages | Cloth $39.95
Political Science / Public Policy
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Table of Contents


Part I. The Question of Citizenship
Chapter 1. The Framing of American Indian Citizenship
Chapter 2. Ambiguous Civic Status

Part II. The Promise of the Ballot Box
Chapter 3. The Voting Rights Act Reaches Indian Country
Chapter 4. The Shift to Vote Dilution, Suppression, and Abridgment
Chapter 5. A Case Study of Jackson County, South Dakota

Part III. Grassroots Perspectives
Chapter 6. Lawyers and Native Voting Rights
Chapter 7. Lifetimes of Activism
Chapter 8. Grassroots Voting Rights Activism
Chapter 9. Stepping Forward
Chapter 10. Why It Matters


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Writing a book is a journey that occurs in stages. The origins of a particular project go back long before the actual eureka moment when the hapless person realizes, "Oh my God, I have to write this book." When asked about this project, I typically identify it as beginning in the period around the 2010 midterm elections, when it became clear that Obama's victory in 2008 had not ushered in a new postracial era. States were adopting new voting laws and procedures—restricting hours at polling places, closing polling locations, limiting registration, and culling people from the lists of eligible voters. Some state also passed laws that excluded people who didn't have the "proper," state-mandated ID when they went to vote. All of these made it much more difficult for many people to vote. There was concern that these laws could disenfranchise large numbers of African Americans and, to a lesser extent, the elderly, students, and the poor. While not naïve enough to think voting rights abuses had been completely eradicated, I was confident that civil rights attorneys and activists would not allow the country's progress toward racial equality to be reversed. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Also, as a white woman living in California, I was not personally affected, and although I am a political scientist, my research interests never had included voting laws and electoral procedures. Moreover, I was beginning to think seriously about retirement and had no desire to take on a new research area, much less a book project.

Life, however, has a way of hitting us upside the head when we least expect it. In my case, it started with a visit from a former student, Deron Marquez. Marquez, who is a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, started recounting stories of truly egregious vote denial, dilution, and suppression directed against Native Americans, incidents that sounded as though they had come out of the Deep South of the 1950s as opposed to Obama's America. While Deron never explicitly stated that he expected me to do something, I certainly felt nudged to do so. I decided to do a little digging, perhaps write a short thought piece about why Native Americans were affected by these new laws. Writing that little article turned out to be a lot more difficult than anticipated. Untangling the many factors affecting the civic status of American Indians and Alaska Natives was not easy and required perusing treaties from as far back as the colonial era, as well as Supreme Court precedents established in the 1820s and 1830s. Also, following the 1924 passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, states adopted a whole range of legal strategies designed to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Native Americans to vote. While some of the legal strategies were similar to those utilized to disenfranchise African Americans in the South, others were uniquely tied to the continuing existence of Native Nations. Understanding all of this required drawing upon history, law, public administration, and sociology, as well as political science—and that first article took more than four years to write.

Just as I was completing the article, I got a telephone call that completely upended my comfortable academic life. Bret Healy, a consultant with the grassroots voting rights group Four Directions, asked me to run some data for a Native American voting rights case in Montana. Healy had gotten my name from someone, who had gotten it from someone else, and that person had heard about me from Deron Marquez. Three days after agreeing to run data, I discovered this meant I was the expert witness in the Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch case and I had one month to pull together an expert witness report. I had never seen an expert witness report, much less written one. It was nothing short of insane. The only possible way to complete the report was to shamelessly exploit family, friends, and colleagues who were willing to help. Claremont Graduate University (CGU) faculty Tom Horan and Brian Hilton used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping to calculate the distances that whites and Native Americans had to travel to access voting. My husband, Paul Peretz, and former student Moana Vercoe helped analyze census, registration, and turnout data, while I handled most of the writing.

There was no way that I could be an "expert" about communities I had never seen, so I traveled to Montana, where I visited reservations and border towns. Mostly I spent time just hanging out, trying to get a feel for what life was like in these communities. Among political scientists, this is called "soaking and poking" research, a way to get a sense of place and context through spending time in a particular area, watching and conversing with people. I talked with local people in cafés, some that were designated as "Indian friendly" and some that Native people avoided. I spent many hours with Native people traveling the dirt roads that cut across their reservations. Mostly I listened to people's stories. Nearly every Native person framed current stories in the context of what had happened to their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and going back even further. One man explained that his people, the Sioux, viewed events from seven generations back as though they had just occurred and that the shape of time was spiral rather than linear. While I don't fully understand this, what I can attest is that I came away with a deep sense that the past, including scars of the Indian Wars, are very much still present.

After returning home, I began telling people what I had learned. What I started hearing back was that I should write a book. I refused, noting there were several very fine books about Native American voting rights, but the seed was planted. Shortly after the Montana case was settled, the Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC) was created. Although not involved in creating NAVRC, I have worked with them as an academic consultant over the past four years. I also have been part of teams doing survey research that figured in voting rights litigation in South Dakota and Nevada. And along the way, I heard more stories and had encounters that made me very aware of the reality of my "white privilege."

I became convinced that what happens in Indian Country is crucial to determining whether "the arc of the moral universe" in the United States does indeed bend "towards justice." If there is no justice for those descended from the nation's original inhabitants, how can one claim there is justice for anyone else? Albeit in a limited way, this book is my attempt to contribute to moving that arc, not through a legal treatise but by weaving together history and law along with the stories of the people engaged in voting rights struggles in Indian Country. My goal is to provide the reader with a nuts and bolts understanding of the legal issues involved in Native American voting rights cases, the ways that they resemble and differ from voting rights cases involving African Americans, and their relationship to broader social justice movements for Native civic inclusion and self-determination.

Again and again, Native people framed voting rights within this broader context of historical struggles for social justice—their right to control the Native lands and resources promised to them in perpetuity through treaties, as well as gaining the basic civil rights promised to all American citizens. Stories, as Ganz (2009) notes, "speak to the language of emotion, the language of the heart, they teach us not only how we 'ought to' act, but can inspire us with the 'courage to' act." Sometimes it is the small stories that are most memorable. One of my favorites involves a young man from the Gros Ventre Nation in Montana. He stated that the behavior of local government officials changed after they won a voting rights suit. For the first time he was treated with respect when registering his car at the DMV. This man linked his personal story of "the arc of the moral universe" bending "towards justice."

By this juncture, you—the reader—will have recognized that I am hardly a dispassionate observer and may question my objectivity. That is a valid concern, and my response is the same one I gave to Bret Healy when he starting telling me what I should find as an expert witness in the Wandering Medicine case. I told him that I would write a report that honestly reflected what I found, full stop, and if he was not comfortable with that, he needed to find someone else. My commitment to accurately recounting what I have found has not changed. What follows is different, however, in that I do not limit myself to traditional political science approaches (e.g., case law, survey research, and quantitative analysis) but instead add in historical materials, including first-person accounts and oral histories. While these accounts bring the issues to life in a way that is impossible to achieve using other methods, I recognize that different individuals' memories of the events may vary. In some places I have been able to triangulate using multiple sources, but that is not always possible. What is true, however, is that across the different settings, the accounts are very similar, lending credence to the stories of widespread discrimination. But readers should feel free to draw their own conclusions.

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