ALBUQUERQUE -- Native American voters, often treated as an afterthought in presidential elections, are receiving an unprecedented amount of attention from both presidential candidates this year in the battleground state of New Mexico.
It's a development nearly two decades in the making in which a handful of Albuquerque–based activists have been working to create a well-organized and powerful Native American voice.
Today, with 63,000 registered voters, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, Native Americans may well be the swing constituency in one of the most politically volatile states in the country.
The Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality (SAGE) Council, founded in 1996 by brother and sister Sonny and Laurie Weahkee, was formed to protest the construction of a road through the Petroglyph National Monument on Albuquerque's fast-growing westside. The city planned to build the road through the site, considered sacred to all of the state's pueblos, in order to ease traffic congrestion for many comuters.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there’s not really a separation between the earth and the way we practice our cultures and our traditions,” said Sonny Weahkee. The petroglyphs, some of which are over 3,000 years old according to park officials, are still used for religious ceremonies by some tribes today.
The Weahkees and their fellow activists did everything they could to stop the road from being built: collected signed petitions, spoke out at council meetings, and tried to block funding for the construction. Sonny and Laurie were even arrested, along with five other SAGE Council members, when they tried to physically stand in the way of the construction of the road.
“At that time, we started to realize that the City of Albuquerque wasn’t going to move, no matter how many people we packed into the city council office,” said Sonny Weahkee, a Cochiti and Zuni Pueblo member. “They were never ever going to vote on our side.”
The road was built in 2005. While the SAGE Council lost that battle, they learned an important lesson: in order for their voice to be heard, they had to mobilize the Native American vote.
“If we stand together and vote together on whatever issue, we can start to gain some momentum and start turning people's heads,” said Sonny Weahkee.
The SAGE Council created the Native American Voters Alliance, a network of Native Americans living in Albuquerque and rural areas of New Mexico. They registered voters at office buildings, and at the Albuquerque Indian Center. There would be long lines of Native Americans, many of whom had never before been asked to register. The Native American Voters Alliance went from a handful of members to over 6,700 participants.
“The SAGE Council has probably done more for registering Native American voters, identifying registered Native American voters, keeping tabs on them, educating them on important issues, and making sure they get out to vote than any other group,” said Laura Harris, executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, an Albuquerque-based group which encourages Native American leadership.
The SAGE Council tries to contact their thousands of members seven times before an election to educate them on what they deem issues important to Native Americans, and then encourage them to vote.
This year, Laurie Weahkee became one of only four Native American superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. She endorsed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama in May.
“He seems to be a lot more interested on root causes of things rather than a band-aid approach,” said Laurie Weahkee.
She adds that the Native American vote is strong enough to make a real difference this year in a state that could be won or lost by hundreds of votes.
“The Native American vote is really critical,” said Laurie Weahkee. “I think it’s even more important as Native people that we really are studying the different current issues and who is speaking to those particular platforms or solutions and then from there choosing our candidates.”
Weahkee also encourages Native people to become involved in politics at any level. While New Mexico has yet to have a Native American member of Congress, there have been several Native politicians in local and state government positions.
“I see a lot more Native people participating and willing to get more involved at the local level, which I think then translates to participating in the electoral process on a larger statewide and federal level,” she said.
An army of activists
Many of the participants from the SAGE Council went on to establish and work for other Native American activists groups in New Mexico. Their efforts to mobilize the Native American vote come with their own distinct set of challenges.
Amber Carillo, who joined the SAGE Council at its birth, went on to work for the All Indian Pueblo Council, which represents 19 pueblos in New Mexico. She continues to actively pursue registering new Native American voters and encouraging those who are registered to go out to vote.
“It’s important to me to really emphasize that having Native folks participate in the decisions that impact them on a daily basis is really the core of what they need to embrace,” said Carillo, who is a board member of the SAGE Council. “There is a great deal of power that we can garner and the was can use.”
There are unique obstacles to registering Native Americans, Carillo added, as many tribal members feel that participating in the federal system can jeopardize their own way of life.
“What I always want to emphasize is that we don’t have to compromise the integrity of our traditions in order to participate,” said Carillo. “I think that if we understand and embrace certain aspects of the American political system that we could actually strengthen where we’re at in terms of preserving who we are.”
Keegan King, who also worked with the SAGE Council and is now director of New Mexico Youth Organized, a group that aims to engage young people in the political process, agreed that Native Americans can be disengaged from politics.
“To Native folks, if we’re working in a rural area or on a reservation there are a lot of times when you find people that say, ‘Why should I get involved? We have our own tribal elections,’” said King. “We’re not living in a bubble. We can retain our traditions but we also need to learn and adapt to our neighbors.”
King, a member of Acoma Pueblo, said he has seen a real increase in voter participation in the Native American community, but also feels there is still a long way to go.
“It’s about our Native people ready to take that step and really start investing in the system that hasn’t always worked for us," King said. "But [it] can if we get involved,”
This piece is cross-posted at The New Mexico Independent.