The “Rez Vote”
By Debra Utacia Krol
(Camp Verde, Ariz.) Unless you live in Indian Country—which encompasses not just reservations, but any place where Indians live, work, or play—you’ve probably never heard of the names Frank Harrison and Harry Austin.
The two men were members of what was then known as the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Tribe. Fort McDowell was actually one of the ancestral homes of the Yavapai people. But in the late 1800s, the U.S. Army forcibly marched the Yavapais off to a concentration camp in San Carlos, Arizona, where the mostly peaceable Yavapais were interned alongside Apache bands.
The Fort McDowell people didn’t give up their quest to return home, though. And in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order giving them back 48,000 acres of land along the Verde River, just east of Phoenix.
In 1924 the story really got interesting: that was the year all Indians were brought into the union as actual citizens, courtesy of the Indian Citizenship Act. Among other things, the Act gave Indians the right to vote in elections. Unfortunately, many states defied the Act and deliberately denied Indians that most fundamental of American rights: the right to vote.
In an attempt to rectify the injustice, Peter Porter, a Pima Indian and member of the Gila River Indian Community, filed suit against the state of Arizona in 1928. But not only were Indians were under federal guardianship, the Arizona state constitution denied the vote to “mental incompetents and people under guardianship.” Thus the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Indians could not vote.
What the state hadn’t reckoned on was Harrison and Austin’s determination.
Harrison had already fought for and won the right for Indians to join unions and secure well-paying jobs, especially construction jobs. When the United States joined World War II, Harrison joined 25,000 other Natives who saw combat. Many served with highest distinctions, and some, like Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who helped raise the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, became national heroes.
After risking his life on the battlefield for his country, Harrison returned home to his impoverished community, where he was still denied the right to vote. His elderly parents were forced to work hard to survive; many Yavapai elders were still denied old age assistance and other federal benefits even though payroll taxes were deducted from their paychecks.
Determined to correct the situation, he sought out Native rights advocates, including Arizona Congressman Richard Harless and attorneys Lemuel and Ben Mathews. All of them were committed to challenging the guardianship clause in the constitution.
On November 8, 1947, Harrison and Austin, the chairman of the Fort McDowell tribe, both walked into the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office to register to vote. When they were turned away, their attorneys immediately filed suit. The case eventually reached the Arizona Supreme Court. Rights groups like the National Congress of American Indians filed legal briefs supporting the case.
Just over half a year later, on July 15, 1948, the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously reversed the earlier courts’ rulings. Justice Levi S. Udall, (father of Congressman Morris Udall), quoted noted Indian law scholar Felix Cohen in his decision:
“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.”
The case, Harrison v. Laveen, is now required reading in every Indian law class across the land.
Shortly after Arizona’s decision, other states that had been evading the law began revising their own statutes. (The last state to do so was Arizona’s companion state, its neighbor New Mexico.)
Yet Arizona then enacted a literacy test for potential voters, which effectively barred some 80 percent of the state’s Indians from pulling the lever. Only the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 eliminated the practice.
Currently, rights advocates still monitor challenges to the right of American Indians to vote, but the Native vote is now considered pivotal to many politicians’ political ambitions.
In Arizona, the “Rez vote” is now considered a key swing constituency. It’s not unusual to see candidates marching at the Navajo Nation Fair parade, sampling fry bread, and kissing fat-cheeked babies on the campaign trail.
Harrison and Austin’s daughters, Ella Doka and Lucinda Denny, help out at Native voting drives. Denny makes it personal, reminding her own son, Dwayne, that his right to vote is what his grandfather fought for just over 60 years ago.
Debra Utacia Krol, an enrolled member of the Xolon (or Jolon) Salinan Tribe of central California, is a freelance journalist and NewsPlink correspondent based in Arizona.
Historic photos of Harrison and Austin courtesy of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.