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News / Politics / Election

Washington tribes find new energy to vote in 2020 election, pour campaign cash into races

By Lynda V. Mapes and Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: October 25, 2020, 6:05am
4 Photos
Lummi tribal members record a public service announcement about getting out the Native vote on October 7, 2020, north of Bellingham, Washington.
Lummi tribal members record a public service announcement about getting out the Native vote on October 7, 2020, north of Bellingham, Washington. (Alan Berner/Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

LUMMI NATION — Freddie Lane gathered up T-shirts, posters and signs at the tribal administration building, getting ready for a Native Vote 2020 rally, planned for later this month at Lummi and reservations across the state.

All over the get-out-the-vote swag was the image of a woman, stoic and resolute.

She is “Lummi Woman,” as the haunting photo made by Edward Curtis in 1899 is called. She was photographed in the midst of historic change after her people in 1855 signed a treaty with the United States, ceding vast swaths of their land. Yet the nation’s first people were the last to receive citizenship, under the Snyder Act passed by Congress in 1924. And it wasn’t until 1962 that every state in the nation secured the right to vote for Native people.

Today Lummi Woman’s descendants, in part to honor their ancestors and protect all that their elders reserved for them in the treaties, are rallying to get out the vote and be heard in the 2020 election.

Tribal leaders see everything at stake, from their way of life to their treaty rights, in the election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump has signed some bills important to Native Americans, including compensation to the Spokane people for loss of their lands in the mid-1900s, and reauthorization of funding Native language programs. And he did not block federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians in Montana.

But the bigger picture is bleak from a Native perspective.

Among their concerns, Trump has downplayed the threat of a pandemic that is ravaging some tribal nations. And he has ignored the scientific evidence for climate change, even as rising sea levels are causing havoc for coastal tribes like the Hoh and as intensifying wildfires are repeatedly roasting thousands of acres of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington.

The administration’s environmental policies have been particularly offensive to tribes that rely on natural resources for their economies and cultural practices. The Trump Administration has even rolled back clean water regulations in Washington intended to protect the purity of foods that are critical to tribes, including salmon.

Every election is important. But to Native people, this election feels more like a matter of survival.

“This is for the sake of our ancestors who fought to protect us,” said Candice Wilson, former vice chair of the Lummi business council and active in the get-out-the-vote campaign. “We have the responsibility to do the same, or what will our grandchildren have? The strength of our ancestors is what makes us strong today. This is about the future.”

Tribes have already put millions of dollars of contributions into the election, according to a Seattle Times analysis of state and federal records of campaign spending. Voter registration and voter turnout also are at the heart of tribes’ election strategy.

“It’s critical,” said Lane, who earlier this month was helping to organize the Lummi Native Vote 2020 rally, taking place Oct. 20.

Teresa Taylor, interim economic development director for the Lummi Nation, knows better than most the importance of voter turnout. She lost her reelection to the Ferndale City Council last year on a coin toss after a tie vote failed to decide the contest. “I can tell you, every vote counts,” she said, while at a planning meeting for the rally.

While they run their own governments and nations, tribes care deeply about the partners they govern with, from city councils and utility boards to school boards, judges, members of the state Legislature, and of course the governor and members of Congress and president of the United States.

That is because exercise of tribal sovereignty and even the most fundamental aspects of protecting and continuing their way of life depends on productive government-to-government relationships at every level, said Nikki Finkbonner, interim general manager for the Lummi Nation.

So much comes down to good governance with partners that honor tribal treaties and cultural imperatives, she explained, from protection of cultural resources and sacred sites, to federal funding for tribal education and housing, health care programs, and protecting natural resources and treaty rights.

“This election means so much for us right now,” said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation. “I don’t know how we are going to survive another four years if things don’t change.”

Not since the campaign by the late GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, infamous in Indian Country for fighting treaty-protected fishing rights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, have tribes been so energized by a federal election.

“We have 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., and 500 who knew who Slade Gorton was,” remembered Julie Johnson, chair of the Native American Caucus for the Washington State Democrats. “All these tribes would say, ‘What are you going to do about him?'”

Plenty, it turned out. In his faceoff with challenger Maria Cantwell in 2000, tribes were regarded as the deciding edge in the tightest U.S. Senate race in Washington history.

Today, Johnson, 78, has been helping to lead a Native voter registration drive and voter turnout effort across the region. Over her lifetime she has seen a big change in Indian political activism, Johnson said, from days of apathy and even being afraid to participate in politics off the reservation.

“A lot of our people wouldn’t register to vote, and I understood that. For years I remember non-Indians shooting bullets into (Indian fishing) boats,” said Johnson, a Lummi tribal member, living in Neah Bay. “I understand why our Native people don’t register.”

But she, and others, also have been bound and determined to change that. “It is good and positive to see our people sitting behind those desks in Olympia and in Washington, D.C.

“We have really increased the Native vote, and it is very powerful, even our people don’t realize how powerful it is, we are getting so many more people involved.”

For so long they were disenfranchised in their own land, and once too poor to take care of their own people, let alone heft campaign clout.

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But today tribes in Washington are active participants in politics. Some tribes with larger casinos also have become important players in funding campaigns.

Since 2016, Washington-based tribes have donated more than $3 million to candidates for federal and state offices in Washington, according to contribution data maintained by the National Institute on Money in Politics ( FollowTheMoney.org ). Of that, nearly $2.5 million went to Democrats, not including donations to political committees such as the Democratic National Committee or state parties.

This year alone, Washington tribes have donated more than $1.3 million to candidates and political committees for state and local offices, according to a Seattle Times analysis of contribution data filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). The Muckleshoots and Puyallups led the way, accounting for nearly half that total.

The tribal political giving skews overwhelmingly to Democrats in a state where the party has largely held the reins of power for decades. But the biggest-spending tribes also spread the money around, donating to Republican incumbents in the state Legislature.

So far in 2020, the Muckleshoot Tribe has donated roughly $212,000 to Democratic candidates and committees in state and local races, compared with about $123,000 to Republicans. The Puyallup Tribe has given nearly $240,000 to Democrats, and about $70,000 to Republicans.

The largest donations have gone to party political committees, which can accept unlimited donations.

The Puyallup Tribe on Sept. 30 donated $100,000 to the state Democratic Party. The Muckleshoot Tribe in July donated $100,000 to a pair of political committees the Harry Truman and Kennedy funds dedicated to maintaining Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate.

The Muckleshoot Tribe in August donated $35,000 to the Reagan Fund, which works to elect Republicans to the state House. A month earlier, the tribe gave $40,000 to the Leadership Council, the committee associated with state Senate Republicans.

Some tribes also are leading contributors in Washington to federal campaign coffers.

The Puyallup Tribe is in a class by itself for campaign contributions so far on federal campaigns this year since January 2019, with more than $2.2 million spent, far and away more than any other Washington tribe, according to data from the Federal Election Commission reports of contributions for 2019-20.

That includes the top six biggest contributions from Washington to the Democratic National Committee, totaling $639,000 since September 2019.

While most contributions from the Puyallup Tribe were for Democratic candidates and committees, the tribe also gave repeatedly to GOP House members Dan Newhouse, of Sunnyside, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Spokane, as well as $35,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The tribe declined to discuss its campaign contributions, spokesperson Michael Thompson said.

It’s not an easy year for political activism, with the risk of coronavirus infection stalking reservations. That has shut down the in-person gatherings so central in Native life and in political campaigns. Some tribal leaders fear the pandemic also will suppress turnout, particularly in rural reservations where voting means leaving the house to drive distances to drop off a ballot.

“We have people refusing to go out; how do we get them to take a ballot to be mailed? This pandemic is going to take us back 10 years in terms of voting,” said Norma Sanchez, a member of the tribal business council for the Colville tribes, whose reservation sprawls across more than 1,500 square miles of rural, north central Washington.

To get out the vote the tribe handed out voter information and registration forms during food bank drive-thrus, said Karen Condon, another member of the business council. “I have been talking to people and encouraging them to vote and to register to vote.”

Just getting a ballot drop box outside the tribal administration building was a breakthrough for this tribe, Condon said, where for so many years too many have not registered to vote, and many today still don’t see why it matters.

But that has to change this year, said Cawston, the Colville tribal chairman. His people are reeling from damage over the past four years.

“It has been a challenge, every facet of our life has been touched and not in a good way. We are just so much under attack, we don’t know where to go, or where to turn any more,” Cawston said.

“We are just constantly facing a losing battle here, it is almost fearful for us to face the next four years and what could happen.”