Native American Heritage Month, picture of rug

November is American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month. Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people.  It’s also an opportunity to highlight the important contributions of Native peoples and the shared histories between tribal nations and other communities.

Tomorrow is Election Day.  If you have already voted, thank you.  If you haven’t yet voted, please stop reading now and head to your polling place.  We’ll wait for you here until you return.

In honor of Heritage Month, we want to acknowledge the historical role of democracy in many Native communities. A majority of tribes today elect their leaders through balloting similar to that of the American political system.  Traditional methods of selecting leaders often looked much different.  Talking things through and forming consensus were more common than majority ballots.   But, they were democratic all the same.  The Iroquois Confederacy is a well-known example.

For example, Lakota leaders were chosen by the community because of specific attributes they possessed and demonstrated in everyday life.  If an individual distinguished himself as a hunter, scout or warrior, the community would often look to them for civilian leadership as well.  The qualities that made them successful in those endeavors—clear thinking, good judgment, calmness under stress—would also serve the community well.  Also, traditional Lakota leaders always thought of the needs of the people first and not their own individual needs. It was those attributes that were looked for when the people sought out leaders.

The principle of “one man, one vote” is more than a constitutional right, it is the bedrock of how we as Americans view ourselves as a nation and as a people.  It is both ironic and disgraceful that Native Americans, who have chosen leaders from and by their people for thousands of years, are having their voting rights eroded by the best known democracy in the world.  Yet, the right to vote is under attack in many places, including Indian Country.  A new voter ID law in North Dakota requires voters to have an address with a street number—something many houses on reservations simply don’t have.   The state of Alaska has dragged its feet in providing ballots and voting materials in Yup’ik, the primary language of many Alaska Natives in the Dillingham and Wade Hampton regions.  In other instances, early voting has been curtailed or denied.

NARF is fighting for the voting rights of Native Americans.  In a significant court victory this fall, the State of Alaska was compelled to provide voting materials in Yup’ik and provide bilingual staff to register voters.  However, much work remains to be done, including working with Congress to restore protections lost in Shelby County v. Holder.

If you are interested in learning more about NARF’s work on voting and other civil rights, please visit the NARF website.  If you are interested in learning more about Native American Heritage Month, please visit the Native American Heritage Month website for more information.

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