By UC Press Executive Editor Niels Hooper

Over the summer, I drove from Truckee (which is on Washoe/Northern Paiute Land) down the Central Valley (which is land of multiple native peoples including Miwok and Yokuts people) to Los Angeles, Chumash and Tongva land. I couldn’t help appreciating on my way down through different landscapes how California was the land of  the largest population of Native Americans in the whole of what now is the United States.

As a historian I know that colonizers all over the world—but especially European colonizers in North America—used arguments of land improvement to seize land and displace indigenous people (however hypocritically). Despite the fact that Native Americans had already used sophisticated forest gardening and controlled fire techniques for thousands of years, Europeans justified land theft by arguments of land improvement, to extract resources—to mine and farm. But driving down the state in the knowledge that the largest of today’s private landowners—logging companies—were closing land access in fear of forest fires, and seeing the parched dry hills and valleys with countless signs expressing desperation for water, I couldn’t help thinking that—even on Europeans’ own terms of justification of land improvement, they/we failed. Climate change and forest mismanagement have devastated California’s landscape already.

I previously did a land acknowledgement where I reflected on my position as someone who was not born here, but on conflicts facing someone who in a way, chose to settle on stolen land rather than being born on other native people’s land. As I was thinking of this new land acknowledgement, I couldn’t get the traumatic experience of June 24th’s extremist Supreme Court ruling out of my head. So this is not a traditional land acknowledgement about the place that I’m sitting on right now, but about land and democracy and rights more generally. Looking at the map of where abortion was being banned almost immediately that week I couldn’t help seeing these vast states that I also think of as Native American land—North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Oklahoma, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Utah—and I couldn’t help wondering how much say Native people in these states had in this decision, how much control they have over their bodies on their land, and how disproportionately they may suffer as a consequence of the Supreme Court (that has never had a Native American Justice on it).

Native Americans are suffering the consequences not only of centuries of being excluded from US citizenship and voting, but after being finally granted these rights in the last few decades, are now disproportionately facing new voter suppression legislation.

Native Americans outside reservations face the same voter suppression issues of access to polling places, and voter ID laws that other people of color, poor people, and young people are facing. Yet those living on large reservations in these states face a series of further, unique, exclusions from the democratic process.

Native American voters living on rural reservations often use ballot collection services due to limited access to home mail services and polling places. Yet laws have been enacted in recent years that make it illegal to pay organizers who collect completed absentee ballots from voters. Also many reservations don’t have traditional street addresses recognized by the USPS. And ballot drop boxes, polling places, and election offices are sometimes located hundreds of miles away from reservations. For instance individuals on the Duckwater reservation in Nevada (not far from where I actually am now) have to travel 140 miles each way to reach the closest elections office in Tonopah. For those traveling long distances, same-day registration was a boon, especially for voters who don’t have access to the internet and can’t register online. But states like Montana are targeting election-day registration. Also states are enacting stricter ID laws to vote—requiring photos, birth-dates, and birth certificates, citizenship proof, and addresses—which tribal IDs often don’t have. Some, especially, older Native Americans don’t have birth certificates. And recent rounds of redistricting/gerrymandering have consolidated or eliminated districts that could reasonably elect Native American representatives especially for instance in North and South Dakota, and in Arizona (where even a few thousand votes could flip the state), all places where the Native American Rights Fund is mounting legal challenges.

Tribal sovereignty should give reservations rights to abortion clinics, but in reality tribes face enormous legal and political risks in states that are outlawing abortions—and it is unlikely that they can offer abortions in these places. When the President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Cecilia Fire Thunder, vowed to build an abortion clinic on the reservation after South Dakota banned most abortions in 2006, she was impeached.

And yet I’m reminded of the fact that Native American women suffer some of the highest rates of violence—of lack of bodily autonomy—of any group in the US. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is a coalition to stop violence against Native women, that shows that Native American and Alaska Native rates of murder, rape and violent crime are ten times higher than the national average, and that human trafficking of Native American women is also extraordinarily high.

So, I was just—imperfectly—thinking of a few things anyone can do. The Supreme Court and the Senate in this country are remarkably undemocratic, but the process that is available to is democracy. We should be aware that the Bipartisan Native American Voting Rights Act was introduced in the House in August 2021 as part of the Freedom to Vote John Lewis Act, and that this was defeated in the Senate in January of 2022. But we can support the Native American Rights Fund and ACLU in their challenges to voter suppression laws in places like Montana and Arizona. And we can bring awareness to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Coalition, join the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and urge Senators to pass the Family Violence Prevention and Services reauthorization act with key Tribal provisions.

It’s not my place to say that abortion services are the highest priority for Native women in Republican States, nor should anyone else make those decisions for them of course—but that’s also the point of this reflection. That discrimination against and disfranchisement of Native Americans, especially on reservations, as well as legal and political threats from anti-abortion state governments rids them—amongst others—of that choice, and they are often the most vulnerable to dire consequences. 

I have a little new coda to this acknowledgement on the Supreme Court. As I mentioned, I presented this to UC Press’s Diversity Equity Inclusion and Accessibility group on June 28th. With hindsight, it was prescient. The next day, on June 29th the Court issued a ruling on Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation there, that undid 200 years of precedent, limiting Native American sovereignty on Indian country. Justice Kavanaugh’s majority decision claimed that Indian country was part of the state, and therefore, unless Congress says otherwise, a state has jurisdiction over Indian territory. In Oklahoma, especially, the current Republican Governor, who has—incidentally—executed more people in 2022 than in any other state, has a notoriously bad relationship with the Cherokee Nation. The principal Cherokee chief, Chuck Huskin Jr., said that,  “in Gov. Stitt we’ve run into someone who fundamentally does not see a role for tribes in the modern world.” Instead of going forward, we are currently going backward in terms of Native American rights in the US. As the Washington Post said in the wake of the new decision, “to put it bluntly, this decision is an act of conquest. And it could signal a sea change in federal Indian law, ushering in a new era governed by selective ignorance of history and deference to state power.”