America, meet the real Pocahontas

Pocahontas2These facts are well-documented: Pocahontas was kidnapped by the men of Jamestown. Then, while in captivity, she was impregnated by and married to one of her captors, John Rolfe. Like one of the Boko Haram girls. He took her to London and showed her off. She got sick there and died far from home. She was twenty-one. Like so many missing and murdered indigenous women (#MMIW). Then she was forgotten for two hundred years. Then she was resurrected, reconstructed, and appropriated to justify the ethnic cleansing and genocide of her people.

Here are some of the details, according to written records from the Jamestown colony and oral history from the Powhatan people.

Pocahontas was born around 1596, the daughter of Chief Powhatan. By all accounts, she was precocious, vivacious, and boisterous. As a child, she led the boys around the English fort at Jamestown, stark naked, doing cartwheels thru their town. Everyone knew the chief adored her. He had many children, most through the wives of vassal villages to cement their allegiance to him. But she was his child through his wife from his own village, the wife he loved. And she was his youngest and last child, for her mother died giving birth to her. Her real name was Matoaka. Pocahontas was a nickname meaning “little wanton one”, what we might call “wild thing”.


Pocahontas supposedly sparing John Smith. She would have been eleven years old at the time. In most paintings, her skin is white.

In 1607, the people of Jamestown were starving. Of ninety, fifty had died. In their desperate search for food, they attacked local villages. The Powhatan guard captured John Smith, their red-haired, red-bearded warrior. Brought before Chief Powhatan, he concocted a story, that they were fleeing the Spanish and were blown off course. They would be rescued soon, he said. May we have some corn? The myth is that Powhatan ordered the execution of Smith, but Pocahontas intervened and saved him. It is true that among many Native cultures, women had the power of clemency, but Pocahontas would have been about eleven years old. In reality, and by Smith’s own account, Powhatan cut a deal with Smith, essentially turning Jamestown into a vassal state, adopting John Smith as his loyal son, and taking the colonists’ weapons, including two cannons and a large grindstone. In return, Powhatan offered them corn. Smith took the deal; Pocahontas probably had nothing to do with it.



She was painted in whiteface and paraded around London as a model Indian.

The English were poor vassals. Still starving, they attacked neighboring villages. Powhatan subjected them to an embargo.


Starving again, the English of Jamestown resorted to cannibalism. In 1610, they abandoned their colony and left. As their vessel sailed out of Chesapeake Bay, they encountered another vessel sailing in. It was England providing more food and bodies to sustain the colony. They turned their boat around.

Three years later, tensions between Jamestown and Powhatan continued to simmer. The English still wanted their cannons and grindstone back. Pocahontas was now 17. She was married to Kocoum and had a child. Because Powhatan feared the English might kidnap her, she moved out of her father’s village to another up Potomac Creek. But the English found her, killed her husband, and took her captive.

Powhatan paid her ransom, so the English demanded a second ransom. Pocahontas’ captivity dragged on. They allowed relatives to visit her, but they would not release her. She married John Rolfe, the founder of tobacco farming in the colonies, gave birth to a child, and converted to Christianity. We have no idea how sincere she was. We do know she was a teenage captive at the time. We do know that her brother, a Native priest who visited her often, was a sincere believer in Powhatan traditions.

After she was married to John Rolfe, he took her to London to demonstrate the taming of the savages. He referred to her as a “creature”. While there, at a banquet hosted by the Bishop of London, she ran into John Smith.  It was the first time she had seen him in many years. She recalled his concocted story that night in the council lodge when she was a girl and his broken pledge of fealty to her father. Still a wanton one, she confronted him angrily. His subterfuge led to the war between her people and his people, the slaughter of Powhatan children, the desecration of Powhatan temples, and, ultimately, to her capture. Her father should have killed him. It’s one of the last stories we have of Pocahontas’ life.

Then she largely disappeared for two hundred years.


In the 1800s, her breasts and blowing hair helped sell chewing tobacco.

Her story was revived in the 1800s. While white Americans passed the Indian Removal Act, shouted “Exterminate them!” and collected bounties for Native scalps, they also became obsessed with Pocahontas, the savage who saw the light of civilization, found Jesus, and married into white society. She was the good Indian, appealing to children from school books and jigsaw puzzles. Burlesque dramas told her story in blackface. A Confederate militia called themselves the Guard of the Daughters of Powhatan.


This story of her story persisted.

Today her portrait, with white skin and brown wavy hair and a face like English royalty, attired head to toe in the latest London fashion, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. A painting of her baptism, twelve feet tall, seventeen feet wide, with life-sized characters, hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. It is one of eight paintings memorializing American history, although four of them depict scenes of white conquest before the Pilgrims even landed. Three of those paintings feature native women, all raped or about to be raped. 


The baptism of Pocahontas is a massive oil painting that hangs in the Capitol Rotunda. The artist was not shy about his purpose: “She stands foremost in the train of those wandering children of the forest who have at different times—few, indeed, and far between—been snatched from the fangs of a barbarous idolatry, to become lambs in the fold of the Divine Shepherd. She therefore appeals to our religious as well as our patriotic sympathies and is equally associated with the rise and progress of the Christian Church as with the political destinies of the United States.”

Disney gave her the body of Barbie, sexy, alluring, exotic and erotic, an object of forbidden jungle love. As a good Indian, she spread her legs to welcome white penetration. Now she is Pocahottie. And, most importantly, in the white re-make of Pocahontas, now she loves John Smith. Thus the wild thing has been tamed, but only in myth.


This theme of male-Euro conquest of female-America began five hundred years ago. In 1946, Samuel Eliot Morison won a Pulitzer Prize when he wrote that “the New World gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians.”

On a related note: Previous blog post on Native reaction to Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test.



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What do Native Americans think about Elizabeth Warren?

<> on February 23, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland.

A conservative politician makes fun of Elizabeth Warren.

It’s complicated.

Two white politicians are in conflict. One, virulently racist and anti-Native in thought, word, and deed, verbally ridicules the other, who is an ally of Natives on most policy issues.

Let’s start with the ally, Elizabeth Warren. To quote Opechan from IndianCountry Reddit, she has been active in promoting and sponsoring “pro-Indian legislation concerning safety, health, and food-on-the-table issues.” She has also allied herself “with Representatives Haaland and Davids, the first Native American women elevated to Congress.” On issue after issue, Warren is united with Native Americans and she is anti-Trump.

That said, she doesn’t really understand Native Americans. She stumbled awfully and publicly into the complex topic of Native identity and sovereignty when she claimed, based on an old family story, that she had some Native ancestry. That, in and of itself, is not surprising, especially for someone from Oklahoma. But what she didn’t have was a long-standing family or personal connection to the Cherokee Nation.

At this point, she should have acknowledged as much and dropped the subject. But she didn’t. She took Trump’s bait and proceeded to stumble more, taking a DNA test to prove that old family story.

That’s when Native reaction really split, resulting in fierce debate.

The most public Native condemnation of Warren, at least as reported by the white media, came from Chuck Hoskin, the Cherokee Nation Secretary of State, who said, “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.”   Within Indian Country, there was plenty of additional condemnation of Warren, the basic point being that she did not understand the difference between a DNA test and an actual relationship with a Native community, nor the distinction between tribes as ethnic groups and sovereign nations. It looked like she was trying to purchase Native identity, appropriate it for political gain, and circumvent Cherokee sovereignty regarding citizenship. Natives called her a “pretendindian”. Academics fit her behavior into a paradigm of white people “playing Indian”.

Then a second conflict erupted, between anti-Warren Natives and the Huffington Post. Jennifer Bendery wrote an op-ed asserting that Native criticism of Warren was overblown. Her subtitle was “Tribal leaders and Native people say the senator is an ally — and they support her look at her ancestry. But hardly anyone asked them.”  Bendery, like Warren, did not have a full understanding of Native American cultural complexity and, like Warren, also stumbled. She claimed she had spoken to many Native “leaders”, and that none of them had spoken out against Warren. Bendery then went on to quote Doug George-Kanentiio, co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), who explained that tribes were busy addressing “serious problems with domestic abuse, youth suicide, environmental contamination, loss of territory and horrifying levels of missing and murdered Native women.”


Elizabeth Warren with Debra Haaland

This struck a raw nerve with many Natives. It sounded like: We’ve spoken to your chief, he’s on our side, don’t be offended by this, just go home and focus on your poverty. Natives have been dismissed like this for centuries. First, Native leaders, even elected ones, don’t speak for everyone. In the age of Trump, you would think the mainstream media would understand this concept. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States routinely targeted weak corruptible village chiefs, bribed them or threatened them, and then got them to sign over thousands of acres of Indiana or Illinois or Georgia. In return, the tribes got annuities, like $5 per person per year (“forever” but usually curtailed after one or two years). The annual payments addressed the hunger and poverty they were experiencing because their harvests had been lost to white settlers and the game was disappearing due to market hunting, which was the only way they could earn cash income. So the Natives were hungry. Often they were in debt, having borrowed money for guns and bullets for hunting. They were in a debt-poverty spiral, and the only way to get out was signing over their land, which just further exacerbated the spiral. But not all Natives agreed with this approach; they wanted to keep their land. We know their names: Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Captain Jack, Chief Joseph, Geronimo. At times, younger Natives killed old village chiefs for signing away their land. So when Bendery focused her argument on “elected leaders”, a whole lot of Natives cried foul. Also, it was clear she didn’t look very hard for other Native voices. She didn’t even go to the Cherokee Phoenix, the oldest bastion of Native journalism, a newspaper founded in 1828.

Second, Bendery’s implication that Natives should not be offended by Warren’s DNA test but instead worry about more material issues is also a tired old line. That’s what Natives are told when they object to offensive Native mascots. As if Natives can only think about one issue at a time.

In response, NAJA wrote to the Huffington Post, decrying the article as “negligent and irresponsible”, and demanded an apology as well as suggesting cultural sensitivity training for all HuffPost staff. The HuffPost rejected these demands, but they did allow an opposing op-ed by Rebecca Nagle (Cherokee), who describes herself as a “writer, organizer and all-around agitator”. In that piece, Nagle provided a list of Native essays voicing concern over Warren’s DNA test, and argued that “Instead of listening to marginalized voices, Warren listened to Trump.”

But again, Nagle doesn’t speak for all Natives. That gets us to our third controversy, Natives versus Natives, because, as NAJA explained to Bendery, “Indigenous communities often hold conflicting viewpoints on important issues.” I’ll refer again to Opechan, who countered Nagle on IndianCountry Reddit. He counseled Natives to put the battle in perspective. He reminded us of Trump, who:

  • “Steamrolled Standing Rock and the Water Protectors by expediting the Dakota Access Pipeline in his first act of Federal Indian Policy;
  • Ended the celebrated Self-Determination Era inaugurated by President Nixon by insisting Tribal Nations be treated as “Ethnic Groups” by the Executive Branch;
  • Commenced a New Termination Era with the additional step of unrestrained implementation of the hated > Carcieridecision from the Roberts Court, beginning with preliminary steps towards seizure of Reservations;
  • Kicked the Indians out of DC through mandatory divisional transfers of divisions at the Bureau of Indian Affairs;
  • Promoted an “American Energy Dominance” Policy that prioritizes highway robbery resource extraction on trust lands above all else;
  • Eliminated Climate Change and land preservation initiatives intended to preserve the land we have;
  • Violated paid and bargained-for Treaty benefits by shuttering Indian Health Seevice with the Trump Shutdown;
  • Elevated President Andrew Jackson, architect of the Trail of Tears that disproportionately killed those in Nagle’s own Cherokee Nation, to a place of honor in the Oval Office and administration;
  • Appointed incompetent Indian tokens who don’t give a shit about Indian Country to high posts affecting Federal Indian Policy;
  • Appointed anti-Indian federal judges and Supreme Court Justices;
  • Fomented a frenzy of racial violence that puts brown folk like us in the crosshairs;
  • Mainstreamed and broadcasted Pocahontas as an in-context racial slur from high office…

…and this is just the abridged version since inauguration.”

Nagle and Opechan represent just two of many voices in Indian Country when it comes to Warren and Trump. Nagle acknowledged both sides of the issue, tweeting, “As cont Native Americans, we live in the space btwn Trump and Warren, btwn the stereotypes created to excuse the wholesale slaughter of our ppl and the stereotypes created to excuse the wholesale appropriation of our identity and cultures.”

So what does this Native American think of the whole controversy? Personally, in the war of words between Nagle and Opechan, they both make some good points. I can’t say the same for Warren or Trump, but I’ll take Warren over Trump any day if that’s my choice.


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Land acknowledgment: North Davis, Yolo County, California

My 2019 new year’s resolution is to do a “land acknowledgment” for every place I stay during the year. I’m starting with my home in Davis.

Land acknowledgments began recently with First Nations in Canada and are simply a public recognition of the history of the land. They are becoming regular at Canadian universities to open any kind of public meeting. To quote Kelly Benning, Indigenous Initiatives Coordinator at Grande Prairie Regional College in Alberta, “More and more, people are starting to do land acknowledgements whenever they do any kind of public event…. It’s just an opportunity for all people to recognize the Indigenous lands that they are standing on.”


My street. I’ll try to post a sunset pic for every land acknowledgment. The structures on the land may change over time, but the sky doesn’t. This sunset would have been just as likely in 1819 as 2019.

For centuries, Putah Creek was Patwin country. Specifically, Southern Patwin, a band of the Wintun ethnic group. They had many villages, some with over 400 people, from Suisun Marsh to the Sacramento River. Yolo, as in Yolo County, is a Patwin word for rushes or grass.

And now for a deeper dive into how exactly I came to hold a title to a house on Patwin land. For the Patwin, everything changed dramatically in a span of less than 30 years, starting in 1821.


history of n Davis

Spain claimed California in 1769, but didn’t even visit this area until 1821, the same year Mexico gained independence and took over California. Within five years, the Patwin villages were visited by several fur trapping parties, including Jedediah Smith and two parties from Hudson’s Bay Company. One of them brought an epidemic, possibly malaria, that killed 20,000 Native Americans in the Central Valley, including a huge proportion of the Patwin in 1833. Their villages were abandoned and the survivors were taken to the missions, which were just being dissolved at the time. By the Gold Rush and the ensuing calls for Native extermination in California, the Patwin villages in the Davis area were already gone.

Mexico 1832 map

Mexico in 1832 (although the Comanche, Pueblo, and others would beg to differ).

The Spanish and Mexican governors granted thousands of square miles of Native land to politically connected individuals. As Mexican control waned during the Mexican-American War, they issued a flurry of land grants to the Mexican elite. Under terms of a treaty with the United States, these grants were honored as long as their boundaries and terms could be confirmed. That’s an important caveat– and white American courts used it as a way to take back the land from Mexicans. As California joined the United States, a land commission heard over 800 cases related to contested land grants. The average time to resolution was 17 years. White lawyers often ended up with a large chunk of the property in question.

puta ranchos

Land grants were first issued using hand drawn maps and crude boundaries. The pink parcel, Rancho Laguna de Santo Calle, turned out to be fictitious; no Mexican governor ever created or granted it.

The Davis area was a prime example of this legal battle over formerly-Native lands. Davis fell within the so-called Rancho Laguna de Santo Calle. This land grant was supposedly issued to Marcos Vaca and Victor Prudon in 1848, at the eleventh hour just before California fell into American hands. The entire grant was later discovered to be fraudulent, but not before Vaca and Prudon sold the Davis portion to Joseph Chiles in 1850. He, in turn, gave the Davis portion to his son-in-law, Jerome Davis, who further subdivided the land, sold off portions to investors, and established the town, originally called Davisville.

So Davis is a land twice stolen. It was taken from the Patwin and then fraudulently claimed by two Mexicans who sold it to an American, who then subdivided it and passed it on. Meanwhile, a small town was forming on the contested land. The case became so confused that, in 1864, the US Congress actually passed a law called the “Act to quiet the Titles to Lands within the Rancho Laguna de Santos Calle, in the State of California”, that allowed the current “owners” (and there were dozens by then) to certify their properties, for $1.25/acre, and settle the ownership question once and for all. The legal challenges actually continued thru 1884, as the Davis area was also claimed by the owners of the nearby Rancho Los Putos (named for the Native word for the river, not the Spanish slang).

The area were I live, called the Senda Nueva development in north Davis, was owned by several real estate investors (one of whom still lives down the street) and wasn’t built until the early 1980s. My house was built in 1986; I think I’m the second owner.

It’s not clear what happened to the Patwin immediately after 1833. In 1850, when California became a state, the first act passed by the state legislature regulated– and legalized– Native child slavery. It’s likely some of the Patwin ended up as domestic servants or ranch hands, probably scattered around northern California. Some may have ended up at a veritable slave plantation run by the Bariessa family along upper Putah Creek (under today’s Lake Berryessa) in the 1850s. There, they would have been subject to a massive Native child sex trafficking enterprise.

Yocha_dehe logoIn the late 1800s, the surviving Native Californians were eventually grouped with other tribes and sent to various reservations (called rancherias). That’s a long story in and of itself.

Today the nearest community of Patwin is the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation (formerly called the Rumsey Indian Rancheria) in Capay Valley. They are dedicated to maintaining their culture and restoring their language. In an interesting twist of fate, the Yocha Dehe, thru their casino, has become one of the largest employers in Yolo County, second only to UC Davis. Thru their earnings, they fund two endowed chairs at UC Davis, which is located at the site of their former village along Putah Creek.


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Science, myths, and alternative histories: An overview of what we know about the peopling of Turtle Island

Migration across the Bering Land Bridge is a controversial subject among Native Americans, kind of like creation and evolution with Christians. It’s also a hot topic among archeologists and anthropologists. The science behind the peopling of the Americas in still evolving, no pun intended. With each new archeological discovery, linguistic analysis, and DNA study, the timeline of human migration is pushed further back, the story gets more complicated, and the controversy continues. Here’s the latest.

The Bering Land Bridge

It is now clear that humans arrived from Asia thru Alaska in multiple waves, some much earlier than previously thought. Originally, most scientific theories focused on the Bering Land Bridge. Because sea levels were lower, this bridge existed from approximately 30,000 BP (years before present) to 11,000 BP. However, during that time there was another obstacle that limited the usefulness of this land bridge: glaciers. While much of Alaska was clear, these formidable walls of ice blocked access to the rest of North America from 21,000 to 13,000 BP. This left just two windows for land migration: one before 21,000 BP and one after 13,000 BP.


New discoveries

The most recent window, around 13,000 BP, was long regarded as the time when humans first came to the Americas. This was based on artifacts found near Clovis, New Mexico, and dated to around 13,000 BP. Even that was older than originally thought.


Pre-Clovis sites

It is now clear that migration occurred earlier. The prevailing view, at the moment, is that Homo sapiens arrived in North America by at least 20,000 BP, but were temporarily blocked by glaciers. For context, Homo sapiens first spread to Europe and East Asia between 45,000 and 35,000 BP. Because much of Alaska was glacier-free, they stayed there, eventually venturing south along the Pacific Northwest coast by boat, finding ice-free “refugia” on islands and peninsulas. There is a growing list of archeological sites, some as far south as Chile, that date as far back as 15,000 BP. This implies that Native American ancestors were clearly pre-Clovis.


Early boat travel makes sense. Even now, you really can see Russia from Alaska—or at least from islands off Alaska. I took this photo from the Nome-Teller Road this May (with caribou in the foreground). As hunters of whale and walrus, our ancestors would have been adept at open ocean travel.

The growing list of pre-Clovis sites, as well as the tremendous diversity of languages in Native America, suggest that very early migration was not a trickle; it was a flood. What’s more, there is DNA evidence that there was reverse migration on at least two occasions; later generations moved back into Asia. Note that today’s residents of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (aka Sivuqaq) speak Siberian Yupik, not Alaskan Yupik.

There are also a variety of archeological sites that suggest very early human presence, as early as 130,000 BP, but these remain unaccepted by most, as they lack supporting evidence.

There is also incontrovertible evidence of contact between Oceana and South America, which led to the spread of sweat potatoes from America across the South Pacific. This was much more recent, however, occurring around 700 AD. Some DNA signals in South America, however, suggest earlier contact.

Red earth and white lies: Deloria’s hypotheses

It is impossible to discuss this without mentioning the theories of Vine Deloria Jr. Because he was a key Native American leader from the 1960s until his passing in 2005, his views on the peopling of the Americas still carry weight today. In 1995, he published Red Earth, White Lies, attacking the prevailing view that Native Americans arrived around 10,000 BP and descended from the Clovis culture. At the time of his writing, the Monte Verde site in Chile had already been dated to 15,000 BP, yet it was not accepted by mainstream US scientists until 1998. Thus, Deloria was ahead of his time, right to challenge American scientists, and was ultimately proven correct—migration did occur much earlier. Furthermore, new discoveries and studies have only strengthened his position. That said, some of his ideas were outlandish. He posited a young earth, similar to a literal interpretation of the Bible, and asserted that dinosaurs lived into the 1800s. He also considered the notion that some Native Americans emanated from the Americas, as described in their stories of origin—more on this below.


Deloria also criticized the notion that the first Native Americans over-hunted, causing the extinction of a long list of large mammals (e.g. mammoth, mastodon, giant ground sloth, saber-toothed cat, etc.). Extinctions and ecological cascades (leading to the disappearance of Homo neanderthalis and other human species) happened in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia as well, all shortly after the arrival of Homo sapiens.

It is important to remember that Deloria was trained as a lawyer and theologian, taught political science and helped establish Native studies as an academic field; he was not a biologist or a geologist. He fought against biases in the science and he was right, in part. Nevertheless, it is well-established that dinosaurs (not including birds) disappeared 66 million BP; Homo sapiens only evolved into present form about 200,000 BP, and only began migrating in earnest out of Africa around 70,000 BP. That’s fairly recent, about 1/1000ths of the time span since dinosaurs last walked on the earth.

Science and Native oral history

While it may seem that current migration theory, with all its emphasis on modern science, conflicts with Native creation stories, it does so no more than the theory of evolution conflicts with the Book of Genesis. The two can live side by side. In reality, there are not just two Native creation stories; there are hundreds. Each culture has their own, some in conflict with one another. Wind Cave is the origin of life on earth for the Lakota, but not for the Cherokee or Chumash. Such stories should be taken symbolically and valued for their rich meaning; they describe the relationship of the people to the land, and of the people to their creator. For example, ancient Israelites said God walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, and yet they did not trust him. The story is about the relationship, not the age of the earth. These stories are not intended to be scientific analyses. North America is not really a giant turtle, nor does it hang from four cords. That said, there are some elements of history in many stories. Consistent with their origin stories, the Diné (Navajo) did migrate from the far north. Today, their Athabaskan ancestors in northern Canada speak a language, Na-Dené, so similar the two groups can understand each other. Origin stories tell us that the earth is a gift from the creator to the people, to be respected and protected.


This map illustrates the general scientific consensus at the moment.

Racist theories

There are other theories, more pernicious, that the Americas were originally populated by Phoenicians, Indians from India, or even white Europeans (including the Solutreans). These so-called “Mound Builders” built great civilizations that were later wiped out by “Indian savages”. This myth was the prevailing theory in the US in the 1800s and has been revived today by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, claiming they are “taking back America” for the white race.

Fighting this “alt-history” is one reason whey it is important for Natives to understand the science behind the peopling of the Americas and to defend it. The ancient mounds of Cahokia and other sites were indeed built by Native ancestors who came here from Asia not long after Homo sapiens spread to Europe and East Asia.


The continuing discoveries of new archeological sites, as well as DNA and linguistic analyses, make one thing clear: Homo sapiens spread thru the Americas earlier than white American scientists first thought. They then spread rapidly and thoroughly through both continents. This allowed Native Americans to develop the wide array of unique languages and cultures that survive today. After that, they were relatively isolated for millennia, as evidenced by unique DNA haplotypes. There was not a continuing influx of peoples from Europe or the South Pacific, either by land or sea—at least not in any significant way that left its mark on American societies or DNA. It is possible to simultaneously believe in this science, to reject white supremacist revisions of it, and to respect Native traditional stories of our relationship to the land.

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Voter suppression led to unusually high voter turnout by Native Americans in North Dakota

After a last-minute court decision required Native Americans in North Dakota to have street addresses instead of PO boxes, the affected tribes and other organizations mobilized to created the needed documents. Election returns from the 2018 midterms show that the attempt to suppress them only energized them.

In Sioux and Roulette Counties, home to the Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain Indian Reservations, voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections actually exceeded turnout in the 2016 presidential election. This remarkable achievement contrasts with the state of North Dakota and the nation as a whole, where midterm turnout is nearly always lower in midterms. In Sioux County, voter turnout in the 2018 midterm was more than double that of the 2014 midterm.

voter turnout resultsNevertheless, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp still lost. In fact, she lost by 35,000 votes, far more than the 7,600 votes that Native Americans could have provided her even with 100% turnout (assuming the same 82% vote for Heitkamp). Early polls had suggested a tighter race, possibly within 5,000 votes, in which the Native vote could have made the difference.

There are still gains to be made in the Native vote. While turnout on reservations was abnormally high compared to past elections, it was still less than the statewide average.


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Supreme Court’s ruling against North Dakota Natives may decide the Senate

In a critical decision that may very well effect control of the US Senate, the US Supreme Court today rejected an emergency appeal by Native Americans in North Dakota regarding their ability to vote in November.

Control of the Senate is up for grabs in this election. North Dakota is one of the key battleground states. At the moment, experts predict a very tight race. They currently forecast that the Republican challenger Kevin Cramer will edge Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp 51% to 29%, or just 7,500 votes out of 300,000 votes cast.

NDelectiondiagramNorth Dakota is a red state, going overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. There are just two counties that went blue. They weren’t the cities; they were the Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain Indian Reservations. Furthermore, some of these areas went 90% for Democrats. Indian reservations are blue islands on a red prairie.


Typical Native ID card in North Dakota, with PO Box but no street address.

The North Dakota governor and legislature understands this all too well. After the battle at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which included anti-Native racial confrontations in Bismarck and left feelings raw, North Dakota’s rulers found the perfect solution. To combat “voter fraud”, they passed a law requiring voters to have an official identification card (e.g. driver’s license or tribal id card) with your residential street address on it. As the Native American Rights Fund explained, “While North Dakota claims that tribal IDs qualify under its law, most tribal IDs do not have a residential address printed on them.  This is due, in part, to the fact that the U.S. postal service does not provide residential delivery in these rural Indian communities.  Thus, most tribal members use a PO Box.  If a tribal ID has an address, it is typically the PO Box address, which does not satisfy North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID law.” If you’ve ever tried to use Google Maps on a reservation, you’ll know what they’re talking about.

As explained in this blog post from last month, the Native American Rights Fund, led be attorney John Echohawk (Pawnee), appealed to the District Court and won. However, this was appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, and overturned by a 2-1 vote. Last week, the Natives appealed to the US Supreme Court for an emergency stay, arguing that:

  • Early voting had already begun;
  • Changing the rules again would cause confusion;
  • The new ruling would affect 5,000 Natives without qualifying id (and 2,300 of them without even supporting id), preventing them from voting.

The case documents are available here.

  • Echohawk’s eloquent and compelling petition to the court can be found here.
  • North Dakota’s reply is here.
  • Echohawk’s final rebuttal is here.

Promotional sign in North Dakota, claiming that voting is “easy as pie”.

On October 9, the Native’s emergency appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court. Because it was an emergency appeal, we do not know the vote. We do know that Justice Gorsuch issued the rejection, without an explanation, and thus voted for the rejection. We also know that Justices Ginsberg and Kagan voted for the Natives and wrote a dissenting opinion. And we know that Kavanaugh did not participate. But even with a 4-4 vote, the Eight District Court’s rejection of the Natives would be upheld.

And thus the Supreme Court has already played a critical role in November’s election.




Here is the advice that @NDNativeVote is giving for those that do not have any documents with their street address or who may not even know what their street address is:

  1. Call the North Dakota Association of Counties and ask for the phone number of the 911 Coordinator for your county.  A list of 911 Coordinators by county is also available here.  For Rolette County (Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation), the 911 Coordinator is Curt Bonn, 701-477-0911, For Sioux County (Standing Rock Indian Reservation), the 911 Coordinator is Frank Landeis, 701-854-3481,
  2. Call the 911 Coordinator for your county and describe the location of your home.
  3. They will assign you an address and send you a letter confirming your address.
  4. When the letter arrives, take it to the local DMV (which may be 75 miles away if you’re on a reservation), pay $8, and get a state ID with your address on it (no estimate of when that will arrive).
  5. If you already have an ID with your PO Box on it, you can use the 911 letter as supplemental documentation.
  6. It’s also possible that, in your county, the 911 Coordinator does not assign addresses, but they will be able to direct you to the person who does.

Easy as pie. Election day is November 6.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, here is an official statement from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe:


BREAKING NEWS ON OCTOBER 18: ND tribes will issue the necessary ID at the polling stations.



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Vote– except if you’re a Native in North Dakota

After Standing Rock, Republicans in the “Deep North” are taking no chances. In April, the Republican-dominated North Dakota legislature passed, and the Republican governor signed, a bill that required voter identification to include a residential street address.

As the Native American Rights Fund explained, “While North Dakota claims that tribal IDs qualify under its law, most tribal IDs do not have a residential address printed on them.  This is due, in part, to the fact that the U.S. postal service does not provide residential delivery in these rural Indian communities.  Thus, most tribal members use a PO Box.  If a tribal ID has an address, it is typically the PO Box address, which does not satisfy North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID law.”

The bill was clearly crafted to disenfranchise Natives at Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain. Like so many reservations, they are blue islands in a red prairie when it comes to elections.


North Dakota election returns, 2016, by county.  Sioux County (84% Native American; 75% for Clinton) is at the bottom.  The blue county at the top is Rolette (77% Native American; 63% for Clinton).  North Dakota as a whole went 70-30 for Trump.

The law was immediately challenged by Native groups, ultimately putting the decision up to various federal judges, all of them older white men appointed by Republican presidents. The first, U.S. District Judge Daniel L. Hovland, appointed in 2002 by George W. Bush, blocked the bill, stating, “The undisputed evidence before the court reveals that Native Americans face substantial and disproportionate burdens in obtaining each form of ID deemed acceptable under the new law…. One reason is that many Native Americans do not have residential addresses, and the Post Office delivers their mail to a post office box.” He also attacked the purported rationale for the law, writing that “voter fraud in North Dakota has been virtually non-existent.”

On Monday, September 24, Judge Hovland’s exemplary judicial independence was overturned by a three-judge panel of his colleagues, representing the Eighth District Court of Appeals.  This will effectively disqualify about half of the Native Americans on reservations in North Dakota. In a crass and blatantly politicized argument, the court essentially acknowledged that these Natives would be prevented from voting, but that it was necessary because the state faced “irreparable harm” from the risk of voter fraud. The court’s ruling concludes a remarkable display of partisan power, with the legislative, executive, and judicial branches working in sync to twist democracy under their control.

Today, just one day later, is informing voters that their identification must include a “residential address”.



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