By Kendra Germany-Wall
On election night, CNN released an exit poll depicting ethnicities who participated in the election. Among ethnicities listed were white, Black, Latino, Asian and something else. This didn’t sit well with Indigenous people across the country, who have been lumped into and often times classified as “other” in datasets for centuries.
The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) demanded an apology from CNN, saying, “Being Native American is a political classification — not merely a racial background. Native nations have had a government-to-government relationship with the United States since the country’s earliest days. To refer to Indigenous voters as ‘something else’ fails to recognize the sovereignty and political classification of Native voters.”
CNN’s gaffe subsequently happened on the third day of Native American Heritage Month and has created a nationwide conversation about how Indigenous people are referenced and understood in this country.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has said there is a critical need for accurate, meaningful, and timely data collection in American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities. The NCAI also stated that accurate data collection and community-based planning capture true needs, thus driving larger programmatic funding resulting in cost-effective use of federal resources.
Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, sent a letter to CNN CEO Jeff Zucker, expressing his profound disappointment with CNN saying,
“Dear Mr. Zucker, On behalf of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (Choctaw Nation), I am writing to express my profound disappointment with CNN’s lack of respect and dignity provided to Native American voters during the 2020 election.
As CNN reported exit polls on election night, Native Americans across the Nation were shocked and deeply offended to see the reporting of critical Native American voters being referred to as “something else.”
Native Americans play a critical role in the elections of this great country. Yet for centuries, we have had to continually fight for the right to vote. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted citizenship to all Native Americans. However, it was not until 1957 through the advocacy of our ancestors before state governments that all Native Americans were allowed to vote throughout the country. Today, we continue to fight against voter discrimination.
Despite these challenges, we have continually turned out in unprecedented numbers and have proven that we can influence elections. To ensure our voices are heard, Native Americans have proudly spent countless hours canvassing, phone banking, registering our members to vote, volunteering on campaigns and lifting our voices up to be heard. We have spent many dollars to increase voter turnout in our communities and are proud of the progress that we have made. From Maine to Florida, across the great plains to the southwestern deserts, into the tundra of Alaska and the islands of Hawaii, we continue to come out to vote.
We have fought long and hard to maintain our place and existence in this world. Yet, CNN’s complete disregard of the contributions of Native American voters as demonstrated by its offensive reporting only perpetuates the continued marginalization of our communities and creates a snowball effect that rolls downhill into federal, state and local governments and neighboring communities that Native American people are not here.
The Choctaw Nation Tribal Council hopes CNN will reconcile its inappropriate and offensive actions by properly recognizing the power and influence of the Native American vote and discontinuing its use of “something else” in future reporting. Yakoke (thank you) for considering the views and concerns of the Choctaw Nation regarding this matter.”
Native Americans have fought for years and continue to fight for their right to vote. They have been and continue to play a key role in U.S. elections. This was very apparent in the 2020 election.
According to the NCIA, the 2020 election saw record voter turnout across the country and a pivotal turnout from Native voters in the decisive states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, among others.
In Wisconsin, where Native Americans compose 1.5% of the voting population, the Associated Press declared that President-Elect Joe
Biden won the state’s vote by about 20,500 votes. That margin equals roughly 1% of the state’s registered voters– proving that those small margins pay off in the long run.
In Arizona, Coconino County, home to the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai Kaibab-Paiute and Havasupai tribes; Apache County, home to the Navajo, Zuni and White Mountain Apache tribes; and Pima County, home to the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribes, all voted overwhelmingly for Biden. Native Americans compose 5.6% of eligible voters in the state.
Native Americans not only played a pivotal role by voting, they made history by running for political office at the local, state and national levels.
The 2020 general election saw a record-breaking number of candidates of Native American heritage win their congressional races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Indian Country Today reported six Native American House candidates won their respective races, meaning the 117th Congress will have more Native Americans than any previous Congress.
Indian Country Today also reported that 50 Indigenous candidates ran for State House, 23 ran for State Senate, 13 ran for U.S. House, nine ran for local seats, eight ran for other state positions, six ran for judicial seats, and one ran for the U.S. Senate.
Of the fourteen candidates running at the national level for seats in the House of Representatives and Senate, six Native Americans were elected. While two of the candidates were newly elected, four are returning members to Congress.
As of publication of this article, eyes were on President-Elect Joe Biden to appoint a member of the Indigenous community to his cabinet– specifically the Department of Interior. This department oversees the responsible development of conventional and renewable energy supplies on public lands and waters, is the largest supplier and manager of water in the 17 Western states, and upholds trust responsibilities to the 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.
Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna and Jemez Pueblo), who was just elected to her second term in the House, is a top contender for the post of Interior secretary along with retiring Senator Tom Udall. Both are Democrats from New Mexico.
Regardless of the 2020 election outcome, Native Americans proved that they are a force to be reckoned with and will continue to be more than just “Something Else.”