Western Washington Gets Real: The Native American vote

WHATCOM COUNTY, Wash. — There’s a push to make sure Native American votes count, to “make a difference,” something that goes back to the hard fought battle to oust a longtime U.S. Senator 20 years ago.

Voters across the state are already casting their ballots in record numbers, including the state’s 103,000 residents who identify as Native American.

They call this land home, nearly 3,000 members of the Lummi nation, the Lhaq’temish people, they call themselves.

But just beneath the surface is a startling reality: unemployment there among working adults is a staggering 60%.

If there is a ray of hope, it likely lies with Freddie Lane, a tribal leader, and the promise of the power of the vote.

“Native vote dates back to before 2000,” said Lane. “I don’t think it was anybody’s idea. Now it’s grown to a powerful movement across the country, across Indian country. You know, Indians make the difference, make the biggest change in Arizona and here in Washington state back 2000.”

That was the year longtime Republican U. S. Senator Slade Gorton lost to Democratic newcomer Maria Cantwell by one of the smallest margins in state history, a result the state’s 29 tribes, many of them newly-flush with cash from the budding casino industry, helped engineer.

“Well, he was an Indian fighter,” said Lane. “There’s no denying that.”

No denying, too, he says, that was the race that showed the state’s Native population that it, too, had political muscle that it could flex.

“Washington State tribes lead the country,” he said. “We lead a lot of the big fights.”

Perhaps that is especially true in the fight for voting rights.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until 2019 that this state got a Native American Voting Rights Act.

And it was due largely to the hard work of only the eighth Native American elected to the Washington State legislature, now-retired Senator John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribe.

“That was because of what was happening in North Dakota,” he says.

What was happening in North Dakota was an attempt to suppress the votes of Native American tribes.

“They were being disenfranchised,” he said.

Sen. McCoy worried it could happen here, too.

"And people asked me, ‘So why are you doing that, we don’t have a problem here in this state?,’ " he remembered. "And I said, ‘but we’re not always going to be here.’ "

So he worked with the Native American Rights fund based in Boulder, Colorado, to craft a bill that could serve as a template for tribes across the country.

“Basically to remove barriers that could be thrown up that could prevent tribes from voting easily,” he said.

That includes a provision that requires county governments to negotiate with tribes to put a ballot drop box on their reservations, just one part of the history-making legacy of McCoy’s 17 years in the Washington state legislature.

A voter on his own tribal land near Marysville is taking full advantage of that.

“And I have more faith in the ballot box because they’re more secure,” said Clifford Taylor, Tulalip tribal member. “That’s why I’m putting them here.”

It matters some 60 miles to the northwest on the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham.

The message that voting matters is sinking in.

“We have children look for, look after,” said Amy Solomon, Lummi Tribal member. “We have parents. You know we want change. We want change. Something has to change in order for things to get better.”

It is a change they now firmly believe can be achieved at the ballot box.