Back to The Forefront
Native Voting Rights and Civic Participation
November 1, 2023
Native Voting Rights and Civic Participation

Newspaper article

In 1924, The Indian Citizenship Act was passed into law, extending citizenship to all Native people. However, even after the passage of this law, states still used a variety of means to disenfranchise American Indian and Alaska Native people. In 1928, Peter Porter and Rudolph Johnson, citizens of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, attempted to register to vote and were turned away. They were denied on the basis that they were not subject to the law of the state, because they lived on a reservation and did not pay state taxes. They were therefore considered “persons under guardianship” of the federal government, which according to the state’s logic, made them ineligible to vote.

The two men filed a lawsuit– Porter v. Hall. The court ruled against the plaintiffs on the ground that they were under ‘federal guardianship’ and therefore disqualified from voting. Twenty years later in 1947, the case was challenged by two citizens of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Frank Harrison and Harry Austin. The plaintiffs were two of approximately 25,000 Native World War II veterans, who fought for and risked their lives for a country that did not accord them the equal rights they deserved. They filed a suit –Harrison v. Laveen– that was deliberated in the Arizona State Supreme Court.

As NCAI was founded in 1944, this pivotal court case is where we first see mention within archival records of the organization’s advocacy on voting rights. At the 1944 Inaugural Convention held in Denver, Colorado, NCAI adopted its first eighteen resolutions. In Resolution Number 6, “Indian Right of Franchise,” it called on authorities to remedy the situation in states where Indians found themselves disenfranchised. 

Following up on that resolution, in 1946 at the 3rd Annual Convention held in Oklahoma City, NCAI adopted Resolution Number 4, which called for the establishment of voting precincts on Indian Reservations; for all eligible voters to register to vote; and for candidates to be required to announce their position on issues of importance to American Indians.

Then, in 1948, NCAI issued an Amicus brief on the Harrison v. Laveen case, arguing that American Indians were not persons “under guardianship” and that the state’s logic was flawed. The state supreme court overturned the original Porter v. Hall case, and on July 15, 1948, Arizona Natives were granted the long overdue right to vote. Of the decision, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Levi Udall stated, “In a democracy, suffrage is the most basic civil right, since its exercise is the chief means whereby other rights may be safeguarded. To deny the right to vote, where one is legally entitled to do so, is to do violence to the principles of freedom and equality.”

At the time of the victory, NCAI’s attorneys celebrated, stating, “This smashing victory for civil rights of our oldest national minority will be a prelude to further advances of the forgotten men of our great Southwest. Indians, not only of the Navajo Tribe, but of many other Southwestern tribes, have been subjected to every sort of discrimination because they have no voice in government.”

Meanwhile, in neighboring New Mexico, another victorious decision in support of voting rights was handed down two weeks later. In the New Mexico case, NCAI General Counsels Felix S. Cohen and James S. Curry successfully argued for New Mexico Natives’ right to vote on behalf of Miguel Trujillo, a citizen of the Pueblo of Isleta, also a returning World War Two veteran.

The case, Trujillo v. Garley, was jointly sponsored by NCAI and the American Civil Liberties Union. The state attempted to argue that Mr. Trujillo was not eligible to vote because he did not pay taxes, a point that was easily refuted by his documented evidence. After the victory, NCAI congratulated its membership for financing the case, and for providing moral support to the heroic plaintiff who faced significant backlash and criticism for fighting for his basic rights.

In March 1949, there was a challenge to the decision. But it was again decided in favor of Mr. Trujillo. When commenting on the outcome, NCAI leaders stated, “This incident is a smashing demonstration of the power that Indian Voters have, if they want to use it. And it shows, too, that they have an efficient working organization, through which they can exercise that power, even on sudden notice.” This organization being referenced, of course, was NCAI.

One month later, when reflecting on the triumphant decision at the Phoenix Area Regional Conference, NCAI’s attorneys declared to the attendees, “The ringing victory will make your enemies think twice before they try anything of this kind again. It will show that from now on, the Indian will be a force to be reckoned with, a force which political leaders will be more anxious to win over as a friend than to oppose.”

Since that time, NCAI had adopted many resolutions calling for the elimination of Native voter disenfranchisement, urging the registration of eligible voters, and ensuring full and equal access to the polls. In addition, archival issues of the NCAI Sentinel featured comparisons of presidential candidates in regard to their stance on issues of importance to American Indian and Alaska Native people. In 1952, in advance of a presidential election, NCAI leaders urged Native voters to remember, “We speak when we vote.”–a statement that still rings true today and a recognition of the political power of Native people.

NCAI continued its advocacy for voting rights, marking milestones along the way, but recognizing that challenges persisted. It was not until the 1960s that the last state extended the right to vote to Native people. Even then, restrictive tactics such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and a variety of other methods, continued to disenfranchise Native voters. Today, the political landscape might look different, but unfortunately similar obstacles still remain.

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