‘We’re here, but we’re invisible’: Native Americans fight to vote on their reservations

A federal judge on Tuesday will hear an emergency motion to open more polling locations.

The site of the two Paiute battles of Pyramid Lake, on the Pyramid Lake reservation in northern Nevada. CREDIT: Kira Lerner (photo), Dylan Petrohilos (graphic)
The site of the two Paiute battles of Pyramid Lake, on the Pyramid Lake reservation in northern Nevada. CREDIT: Kira Lerner (photo), Dylan Petrohilos (graphic)

NIXON, NEVADA — Gladys Hicks has lived on the Pyramid Lake reservation in northern Nevada for her entire 83 years. She has never had a driver’s license, and, due to a broken hip, she relies on family members to help her get around.

Hicks, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Native American tribe, lives almost 45 miles from Reno. But in order to register to vote or cast an early ballot in-person for next month’s general election, she would have to make that long journey off the reservation.

“She doesn’t like to go too far from home,” her daughter, Della John, told ThinkProgress.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, John sat in the tribal office building where she works as an executive officer, responding to emails and phone calls about the tribe’s budget and upcoming cultural events.

While her job ensures that she is more connected, most of the roughly 1,700 Pyramid Lake Paiute live in remote homes without access to the internet and oftentimes without a car. Almost one quarter of the tribe lives in poverty.

Della John works as an executive officer for her tribe. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Della John works as an executive officer for her tribe. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Outside her office, dozens of homes can be seen scattered across the desert, with miles of sage brush and hills between them.

“Although our Indian people have been here for a long time, we still feel invisible sometimes,” John said. “We’re here, but we’re invisible.”

With the start of early voting just over two weeks away, the Pyramid Lake Pauite and another nearby northern Nevada tribe are entangled in a messy court battle in order to affirm one of their most fundamental rights, granted to them in 1924 — the right to vote.

‘Voting rights’ or ‘voting convenience’

While the two tribes have faced discrimination at the ballot for decades, they will finally get their day in court. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Reno will hold a hearing in a lawsuit filed by Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group, on behalf of five members of the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute reservation.

The judge will consider a request for an emergency injunction that would open satellite voting locations on the two reservations during Nevada’s two-week early voting period.

Under the current set-up, Anglo members of Nevada’s Washoe and Mineral Counties have easy access to voter registration and early voting sites, but members of the two tribes have to drive up to 100 miles in order to register or early vote in-person in U.S. elections.

A recent survey conducted on the reservations found that “an overwhelming majority of Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribal members do not possess the economic and transportation resources to mitigate the travel distance to cast an early vote [on] an early voting site.” Only 35 percent of Walker River residents and 32 percent of Pyramid Lake residents said they own a car reliable enough to travel 100 miles without concern.

“I think it’s discriminatory based on race and income, because we’re poor,” John said.

Four Directions decided to take on Nevada’s disparity this year, after successfully fighting for satellite voting locations in South Dakota during prior elections — which led turnout in one Indian county to increase almost 140 percent.

In August, Bret Healy, a consultant for the group, asked the Nevada Secretary of State to open satellite polling locations on each reservation. From Healy’s perspective, the request was reasonable, would use minimal resources, and would help to equalize voting access in a state where white citizens have numerous ways to vote, but Natives have far fewer.

“If we were to give Indians three hours to vote on Election Day and Anglos 12, nobody would think that were fair,” Healy said. “This is no different.”

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

But Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) denied the request, claiming that voting locations are a local issue that should be handled by individual counties. Her office declined a request for comment. Meanwhile, the county registrars claimed the opposite, and the request was ultimately denied.

Healy alleges that both levels of government have been lying in order to avoid accommodating the tribes.

“She happens to be a Tea Party Republican,” Healy said in reference to Cegavske. “She would get, I’m sure, excoriated by her Republican colleagues if she would make it easier for a constituency that leans Democratic to vote.”

The state has argued that while Natives on the two reservations don’t have access to early voting in-person, they could register or absentee vote by mail. But there are also barriers preventing them from using the mail.

In Nevada, helping someone — including a family member — register to vote by mail without denoting that help on the application is a felony. Healy says the potential for a felony charge is a deterrent.

“After knowing of a potential felony, less than 20 percent of Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute members would be willing to ask for assistance in voter registration from their family members or other tribal members,” Healy wrote in court, citing statistics from his September survey.

Voting by mail also requires the inclusion of a copy of a Nevada state ID — but tribal ID cards don’t qualify for this requirement, and many tribal members lack driver’s licenses or other state ID cards.

Plus, tribal members say the postal service is unreliable on the reservations.

“There’s too many ways that these mail-in votes can get lost,” said Patricia Williams, a member of the Walker River Pauite tribe. “They can get lost in the mail or human error.” When asked if she trusts the mail service on the reservation, she said: “I don’t, and I’ve worked for the post office for years.”

And while the tribes will have voting locations on Election Day, that leaves them with only one day to conveniently vote in person, while Anglo members of their communities have at least a dozen.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently sided with the tribes, writing in a court filing Monday that Cegavske and the two counties are misstating the Voting Rights Act in their court filings. According to the government’s filing, the state is confusing voting rights with “voting convenience.”

Whether the reasoning is racial, political, or otherwise, Native Americans in the area say it’s blatantly unequal. Alvin Moyle, the former chair of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe, said that to him, it’s flat out discrimination.

“It’s very easy to see, if you’re right here looking at it up front, that it’s unequal,” he said. “It’s just unequal.”

Tracing a history of battles

The current fight against the state of Nevada can best be understood when you know their long history of conflict with the U.S. government.

Just a few miles from the tribe’s headquarters, a Nevada-shaped plaque on the edge of Highway 447 denotes the location of the two battles of Pyramid Lake. On that site in May 1860, the Paiute people fought Americans seeking to mine silver on the tribe’s land. The war began when the miners allegedly kidnapped two Paiute sisters, and didn’t end until 76 white militiamen were dead. The Natives declared victory, but it was short-lived.

The next month, the U.S. soldiers came back for revenge, this time with help from the U.S. army and more than 500 volunteer soldiers from California. The white men easily defeated the far smaller group of Paiute warriors, allowing them to seize and build forts across the tribal land.

A plaque denotes the location of the two battles of Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
A plaque denotes the location of the two battles of Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

According to the plaque now sitting atop the narrow canyon, the Natives had to fight to retain their way of life. Four years later, Nevada became the 36th state and Native Americans were not allowed the right to vote.

“The way the Indians were treated, we were like prisoners of war,” John said. “It’s kind of a historical trauma.The way our interactions are now and some of our dysfunctions are a result of that trauma.”

Now, more than a century and a half later, the tribe often remains at odds with the U.S. government.

In addition to the day-to-day issues with government recognition, the Pyramid Lake Paiute have also been entangled in ongoing litigation against the Nevada over the diversion of the Truckee River, which has left many of its water sources dry. Back during the time of the Paiute War, a river flowed through the reservation’s canyon. But today, that river is just a small trickle of water, and the reservation’s Pyramid Lake has lost more than 80 feet of depth.

Many tribal members recognize that the only way to change that relationship with government is to have input in who governs, which is why the state’s denial of their voting rights is particularly disheartening.

“It’s not surprising because our parents went through it and their parents,” John said. “It just makes you feel like you just have to take care of yourself because nobody else is going to.”

Pyramid Lake has lost roughly 80 feet due to government diversion. CREDIT: iStockPhoto
Pyramid Lake has lost roughly 80 feet due to government diversion. CREDIT: iStockPhoto

Four Directions had the same outlook when they filed their lawsuit against Nevada’s election officials. Their complaint named five people as plaintiffs — the chairmen of both tribes, and three veterans: Johnny Williams, Ralph Burns, and Robert James.

Over lunch at Stockman’s Casino in Fallon, Nevada — midway between Walker River and Pyramid Lake — the three men explained to ThinkProgress just how unfair the allocations of polling places are.

Ralph Burns, Robert James, Patricia Williams, and Johnny Williams. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Ralph Burns, Robert James, Patricia Williams, and Johnny Williams. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Residents of Walker River, where Williams lives, have to drive 70 miles round-trip to Hawthorne, Nevada to visit the nearest early voting location. “A lot of people, they don’t go all the way to Hawthorne for that,” Williams said. “A lot of them are disabled, we have a lot of seniors that don’t drive and no way to get there, and we have a lot of young people that don’t have driver’s licenses.”

Williams’ wife, Patricia, noted that her neighbors “don’t normally travel to Hawthorne.”

And residents of Pyramid Lake, like Burns and James, have to drive 96 miles round-trip to Reno, the county seat for Washoe County. “I think more people would come together to vote if it were closer,” Burns said.

Meanwhile, Incline Village, a wealthy town along the northern shore of Lake Tahoe, has its own early voting location at the local library.

“Those neighbors who have literally 10 to 20 times as much wealth, on average, as Pyramid Lake Paiutes, they don’t even have to get their Land Rovers and Escalades dirty driving down the road,” Healy said.

The Incline Village library along northern Lake Tahoe will be one of Washoe County’s early voting locations. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
The Incline Village library along northern Lake Tahoe will be one of Washoe County’s early voting locations. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Looking to November

This election, the stakes are particularly high for tribal members.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly disparaged Native Americans — along with almost every minority group — while his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton has vowed to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. government and Indian tribes.

The Nevada Senate race is also incredibly close, as Catherine Cortez Masto fights to become the first Latina to serve in the Senate.

For her part, Cortez Masto said she has campaigned on the reservations and believes that the Native Americans should be given equal access to the ballot.

“A lot of the reservations are really hard to get to,” Cortez Masto said. “They’re in the middle of Nevada and they should have access. We have the technology that can do it, so let’s do it. Let’s open that door… We should be able to ensure that we have voting machines in their community.”

“For me, the right to vote is so important and I think we should be figuring out how we can make easier access for everyone to be able to vote,” she continued.

The tribal office building on the Pyramid Lake reservation. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
The tribal office building on the Pyramid Lake reservation. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

After the federal judge hears the tribes’ emergency motion on Tuesday, Healy said he expects a ruling soon. Many Natives and voting advocates have not given up hope that the satellite offices can still be opened for the early voting period.

“We’re still within the time frame,” Moyle said. “It can be done. We still have enough days to do it.”

“Our vote is our voice, and every person has a vote.”

If not, Pyramid Lake tribal administrator Della John said she will try to work with Gladys, her 83-year-old mother, to vote absentee. Gladys has been engaged in this election, recently watching the presidential debate and expressing support for Clinton.

Many of John’s children and 19 grandchildren are also eager to vote. Pointing to a photo of her young grandson on the wall of her office, John said that although many elders are skeptical of government, the tribe’s younger generations understand the importance of voting.

“If you don’t use your voice, no one’s going to hear you,” John said. “Our vote is our voice, and every person has a vote.”

UPDATE: A federal judge ruled in favor of the Native American plaintiffs on October 7, requiring the state of Nevada to open up satellite early voting locations on each of the two reservations.

“There is a considerable body of research that supports the intuitive notion that the greater the distance a voter has to travel to the polls, and the more impediments to travel, the less likely that voter is to vote,” the judge wrote.

While the judge found that Washoe and Mineral Counties do not have to set up in-person voter registration for the tribes before Election Day, the ruling does require the counties to establish in-person early voting locations in Nixon and Schurz, Nevada.

“It is clear that abridgment of the right to vote constitutes an irreparable injury,” the order said.