American Indians: The Forgotten Voting Bloc of the U.S. Electorate

When one says the phrase “American Indian,” what comes to mind? Is it the fierce looking warrior on horseback or perhaps the individual in war paint holding a repeating rifle, ever ready for battle?

We have so many political and societal issues being discussed in regards to 21st century American citizens, yet it is truly rare to hear any issues relating to present day American Indians. “Present day” being the key phrase.

Isn’t it unfortunate that a group of people America forced to accept a European-based society are left to be their own advocates in the U.S., typically having little voice at all? If asked to picture a person of indigenous ancestry, I would argue a much more realistic depiction would be one living a modern American life. Granted, perhaps with small variations, comparable to any differences between ethnic groups.

However, many also continue to see the negative effects of the past that have yet to be corrected.

Poverty is a concerning issue among various contemporary American Indian communities. Of course, not every person of North American indigenous ancestry is living in poverty stricken communities, yet the numbers in regards to this are sobering.

, as compared to a national U.S. average of 14.3 percent.

My question is how, as a nation, do we justify such misfortune among a people we have exerted so much influence over during the past 200+ years? Are we so far removed from the immoral actions of our own ancestors toward these native societies that we negate our responsibilities to the well being of their communities today?

In a time where recognition of past wrongs is vital, it is certainly not the sole solution either. Real advocacy, as well as action, is needed for the status quo to see a positive change in favor of the various American Indian heritages.

A loss of culture, if not the worst atrocity, is truly one not to be overlooked in terms of collateral damage done to native societies. All one has to do is research the Carlisle Indian School, opened in the late nineteenth century in an effort to “convert” Indian children to be American.

Youth were not allowed to speak their own language, practice their faith, or wear non-European clothing, which had a lasting effect. The hope was for them to grow up and be able to assimilate into white society, essentially “weaning” the Indian culture out of existence, if you will.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Well that’s not so bad, I guess.”

However, through simply looking at race relations throughout history, foretelling success of this program should be simple. Despite many children adapting to American culture and even learning useful trades, what white communities would be accepting of them in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century?

One thing that history proves is that public opinion is uncontrollable. The chances of successful Indian assimilation in that time period, despite a few individual’s best intentions, was minimal at best. While the Carlisle School had a devastating effect on only a small group, relative to the many native inhabitants of the time period, it is just one of many examples of disservices done to American Indian cultures.

According to PBS Indian Country Diaries, in an insightful work called, “Revitalizing Native Culture,” there were 175 native languages spoken in the 90s compared to the many hundreds in pre-European contact. These are staggering numbers that are very telling of the degeneration of indigenous populations and their heritage.

In a time where we put value on respecting other cultures, it is a true embarrassment that few of us think of the American Indian in discussions about moving America forward, myself included.

I always begin my first day of the semester teaching U.S. History classes for college freshman with a picture of candidate Barack Obama visiting the Crow Tribal Reservation. I ask them why this is significant. Typically they answer correctly, even if not realizing the significance of the larger context.

This is because we don’t see politicians, nor the public, giving contemporary American Indian groups a voice in American politics.

What can politicians and the public do to give American Indians a meaningful voice in national politics?

Now the motivation behind candidate Obama visiting that reservation can obviously be debated. Regardless, when thinking of U.S. voters, I would suggest that conservative, liberals, and others may come to mind. Do individuals of North American indigenous ancestry pop up in our thoughts when picturing the American electorate?

While we continue to argue over health care laws and ask the question of “what can we do to help me,” I can’t help but think of the story of the Indian students from the Carlisle Indian School, getting off the train to greet their parents after being separated for so long. As they walk up to greet each other, they then realize they cannot, no longer do they speak the same language they once shared.

Perhaps it is time to right the wrongs.

Photo Credit: Mike Roselli / CNN