Op-Ed: By the Dawn’s Early Light

Tiffany Hunts Along belongs to the Three Affiliated Tribes, a community of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations now living on North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. She knew the mountainside well, the beautiful hilltops and expansive fields surrounding her cherrywood mobile home where she lives with her husband and children.

However, when she was asked about her official address, she was at a loss.  It wasn’t until she took out her newly issued tribal identification card that she was able to name her address, a street called Medicine Otter Loop where she had been living for over a year. Unfortunately, many others in North Dakota’s indigenous communities struggled to obtain the appropriate documentation in time to cast a ballot for this past Tuesday’s midterm elections. This inequitable treatment is all thanks to a state law passed by the Republican state legislature only one month prior that rejected tribal IDs without accurate street addresses as accepted voter identification at the polls.

Not only are indigenous communities bearing witness to wide-scale voter suppression, but they are also at the mercy of a continuum of attempts at perpetuating a violent colonial history of cultural erasure and assimilation.

About 60% of Native Americans in North Dakota live on reservations lacking official street addresses and direct mail services, a design of the hierarchical powers responsible for inflicting a mass genocide and ethnic cleansing upon the indigenous inhabitants of these lands during their initial phases of settler encroachment.

State officials claimed that the measure was meant to protect against voter fraud, but without being able to provide any evidence of past trends in voter fraud, it is glaringly evident that such a widespread disenfranchisement of Native Americans is intentional in its oppression of historically marginalized communities and culturally destructive in its implementation.

The timing of this law came right at the denouement of a competitive campaign cycle for the state’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Heidi Heitkamp and Republican challenger Kevin Cramer. Heitkamp won her seat back in 2012 by only about 3,000 votes but was unable to squeeze through this time around, losing her race by about 9 percentage points in a state that Trump carried by 36. Political ramifications aside, this issue extends far beyond mere voter suppression.

The history of indigenous peoples of this nation is one of ultimate importance. Colonial exploitation and elitism helped set the foundation for this country, influencing its evolving values and so-called democratic structures that continue to oppress marginalized communities today to an irrevocable extent. It was simply not enough to have banished Native American tribes from their own lands, and after having seized their livelihood and inflicted disease and starvation, forcing them to migrate to federal reservations on foot during one of the darkest shadows cast on our history known as the Trail of Tears.

Institutionalized racism and cultural erasure manifest itself differently today, yet they are still at the hands of an elite class wishing to control the status quo over minorities that may present a challenge to that structural power, with North Dakota’s voter ID law being a prime example of this process. As Chief Diversity Officer of USC’s Undergraduate Student Government, I am able to analyze the subtlety with which bureaucratic administrations perpetuate the disempowerment of such groups, most notably the lack of institutionalization for cultural student organizations that are not able to amass an arbitrary conception of a sufficient level of community engagement. How can we expect these groups, bearing the weight of multiple layers of forced oppression, to build up an organized community to advocate for their interests when they are denied those opportunities at every turn?

In a manner that echoes our brutal Jim Crow past, modern voter ID laws serve to invalidate indigenous and minority identities, to further remove them as secondary or even extraneous to the American political process. In doing so, the political establishment weakens their voices and deems their identities to be inconsequential or even invisible in the eyes of the mainstream, taking a crucial step in enforcing a cultural hegemony. It wasn’t enough for this early establishment to construct American schools on Native reservations, mandating children to adapt to the Western traditions of their colonizers as memories of their own customs, languages, and stories began to fade away.

The oppression of marginalized groups drastically affects the vitality of our American democracy, placing an impetus for reform on all of our shoulders. Neither major political party is in the clear. While anyone is able to easily regurgitate the same abysmally progressive rhetoric we’ve been hearing on campaign trails nationwide, the entirety of this nation will be held accountable until our government is truly reflective of diversity and equity in its composition and its legislative actions.

Disenfranchisement does not solely render a citizen unable to vote for their interests to be represented in governmental affairs. The evolution of voter suppression stems from our historic narrative of colonialist brutality, and our continued self-prescribed ignorance is leading us further towards the urgency of a renewed civil rights movement. The work is never complete.

None of us are free until all of us are free.