Organizers focus on reaching Indigenous voters in northern Minnesota

A team of organizers for Rock the Vote Native Style, which helped register new Indigenous voters in northern Minnesota. From left: Nicole Ektnitphong, Dawn Goodwin, Nancy Beauleu, Joey Oppegaard-Peltier, Christian Taylor-Johnson, John Seng. Courtesy photo.

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this story, the Reformer has learned that many — perhaps most — of the new registrations are not new voters. Some of the new registration forms were duplicates. Some voters may have merely changed their address. The information arose from new interviews with the Clearwater County auditor/treasurer, the Beltrami County auditor/treasurer and an official with the voting activism group Four Directions. This story has been updated to reflect the new information. 

The Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake Reservations collaborated with the environmental group MN 350 and Four Directions — a voting advocacy organization — to register hundreds of new Indigenous voters this fall. Around 5,500 Red Lake Nation citizens filled out voter registration forms. It’s not clear how many are new voters, however. Many of them were already registered but filled out the forms to indicate a change of address. Another 2,500 completed registration forms were split between White Earth and Leech Lake.

Even if the registrations are not all new voters, they indicate person-to-person contact between organizers and voters, which will make it more likely people on the reservations will mail in a ballot or turn out Tuesday. That in turn could have implications for local and state elections. Red Lake Nation is situated primarily in Beltrami and Clearwater Counties. One in five residents of Beltrami County are American Indian, as are roughly one in 10 in the neighboring Clearwater County. 

State Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, is facing off against Alan Roy, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party challenger who serves as the secretary-treasurer of the White Earth Tribal Council. 

A victory by Roy would put the Senate DFL within one seat of the majority given the current 35-32 Republican control. 

The DFL is hopeful the new registrants will support their candidates, though it’s no guarantee. 

Beltrami County went for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but flipped to President Donald Trump in 2016. In 2016, Utke won his district by more than 5,000 votes. 

Since the beginning of the year, Roy has raised and spent $57,000 more than the Republican incumbent, according to a campaign press release. 

Christian Taylor-Johnson, a descendant of the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and an organizer with Rock the Vote Native Style, credited the use of local organizers for the registration success. 

“I think there can be a lack of trust when you see outsiders coming in with pens and paper, especially within Native communities, so that’s why we’ve been trying to hire locals,” he said. Potential for outsiders to spread COVID-19 among Indigenous communities heightened the importance of homegrown recruitment, he said.

Organized efforts have included socially distant bingo nights, webinars, collaboration with Native Roots Radio and an elder fire talk, said Nicole Ektnitphong, a statewide organizing director for MN350. 

Four Directions has bused Red Lake Reservation candidates to the government center for in-person registrations. They’ve also relied heavily on canvassers and community members to encourage friends and family to register to vote.

Beltrami County Auditor-Treasurer JoDee Treat said the recent pile is the most voter registration applications from a single drive she could remember seeing. (It turns out many if not most of the voters were already registered.) Clearwater County Auditor/Treasurer Allen Paulson said some of the registration forms were duplicates, and some were new. 

Natalie Landreth, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said voter suppression has in the past limited voter registration and turnout among Indigenous nations. 

For example, following the 2012 election of North Dakota’s U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, the Republican-controlled Legislature tightened restrictions, including a requirement that voters present state-issued IDs that include street addresses. This disenfranchised Indigenous voters, who were instrumental to Heitkamp’s election, as many use tribal rather than street addresses. 

Landreth said she has a simple voting process, receiving a ballot in the mail and dropping it at a ballot box near her home, but she said most Indigenous people aren’t so lucky. “That experience does not exist on nearly every reservation, including in Minnesota,” Landreth said.

American Indians comprise a small but regionally important voter bloc, one that is often untapped. Indigenous people are 1.1% of the state’s population — more than 60,000 people — and nearly one-third of them are not registered. State Senate races are often decided by a few hundred votes or fewer, so the new registrations could make a difference. 

“This is a very big voter base if you can tap into it and address issues specific to reservations, like access to health care, transportation, ballot boxes,” Landreth said. “This is a time when [Indigenous people] get to flex their political muscles. Politics is a numbers game, and this is how power is born.

Pictured: A community event in Bemidji called “Rock the Native Vote: 2020 and Beyond.” Organizers managed to register hundreds of new Indigenous voters in recent months, which could tip a key state Senate race. Courtesy photo.

The registration drive does not ensure the DFL a victory in Northern Minnesota. In 2018, 61% of Native American voters voted for a Democratic congressional candidate, according to the Latino Decisions Election Eve Survey. That number is lower than the Democratic vote share among Black, Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

“We’ve had opportunities to engage with people to say why voting matters, how all the levels of government work and why our work doesn’t end on Nov. 4,” said Nancy Beaulieu, citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and co-founder of the Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging Coalition. “If you’re not at the table, you’re what’s being served, so we have to show up for one another.”

Beaulieu also hopes the election will lead to more Indigenous representation at the State Capitol. At least six Native American candidates are on the ballot for the Legislature — including Roy — according to Indian Country Today. Of those, five are Democrats and one is a Republican. Two Native Americans are also vying for Cloquet and Bemidji City Council. 

Though Beaulieu said neither major party has wholly served the needs of Indigenous communities, she wouldn’t be surprised if the new voters tilt toward the DFL, citing President Donald Trump’s pattern of hateful rhetoric. Earlier this month, a welcome sign for the Red Lake Reservation was defaced with a swastika and “Trump 2020,” according to the Red Lake Nation News.

Trump’s rally in Bemidji earlier this fall helped catalyze registration, said Taylor-Johnson, the organizer for Rock the Vote Native Style. He and other native organizers participated in a counter rally, complete with some 400 attendants, Indigenous prayers and a Grass Dance. They racked up about a dozen voter registrations at the event.

“This isn’t necessarily Trump country. No, this is Indian country,” Taylor-Johnson said.