2016 is shaping up to be a record year for Native American electoral participation. Eight indigenous candidates are running for Congress, up from two in 2014. Over 90 are running for state legislatures, again exceeding previous years. “This is the best campaign ever in Indian Country,” says Nicole Willis, member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and former advisor to Bernie Sanders. “There’s no question about that.”
“Tribes are organised entities that tend to vote as a group,” says John Dossett, General Counsel within the National Congress of American Indians. “When they turn up and vote in one block, they can have a huge impact at a state level.” Many Native American commentators point to President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve relations with the country’s tribal nations. In the course of his two terms in office, he has settled hundreds of legal disputes with indigenous communities, passed favourable legislation, like the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and established an annual conference for tribal leaders to meet at the White House.
With close to 32% of Native Americans under the age of 18, a particular drive to get young people involved in political action is underway. Government-funded programmes like Generation Indigenous, which seeks to empower native millennials, have been working to inspire this age group for years. “The US political system was not designed for us,” says Jaynie Parrish, an original member of the Native Vote Initiative, which seeks to encourage indigenous political participation. “Getting young people involved is incredibly difficult. But we are learning to play the game.” Of the 94 indigenous candidates running for office this year, 75 are Democrats, 14 are Republicans and four are independent.