A record-breaking six Native Americans candidates were elected to Congress while several others were elected in states across the country, showing the strength of Native American voting power.
By Terrelene Massey
When I think about the past year and what it meant for Native American tribes and communities, I think about my beloved grandfather, my cheii. I lost my 85-year-old grandfather to COVID-19 in early July, a few weeks after the Arizona state government made the reckless decision to reopen amid the pandemic without requiring masks. He is one of too many Native American folks whose health and safety have been neglected by the government, whose beautiful lives were treated as collateral in an unsafe push to reopen the economy during a pandemic that has carried the greatest harm for Black and Indigenous folks.
From the COVID-19 pandemic to health care access—including reproductive health care—to the crisis of thousands of missing Indigenous women and girls across the country, our health and rights have been ignored by lawmakers for years. Despite this, in the face of barriers that restricted our right to vote, Indigenous people from Arizona to Wisconsin showed up in tremendous numbers to elect competent and compassionate leadership. A record-breaking six Native candidates were elected to Congress and Native Americans were elected up and down the ballot in states across the country, showing the strength and diversity in our numbers.
As a Navajo woman, this year brought immense pain and suffering to my community, but I was also inspired by our perseverance and our power. In Utah, Montana, and my home state of New Mexico, Native American death and infection rates are five or more times greater than their share of the population. At the beginning of the pandemic, in Arizona, where my grandfather died, Native Americans comprised 16 percent of COVID deaths but make up just 4.6 percent of the state population. By prioritizing profits and politics over people and masks, the government cost the lives of so many of our elders and community members. In turn, Native Americans responded with their votes, with Arizona exit polls showing that pandemic response was the most important issue for them.
Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 is just the most recent example of Native lives and wellness being disregarded by many of our elected leaders. Many Native American women are blocked from reaching health care like abortion care, and freely planning, creating and caring for our families by the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicaid and the Indian Health Service from covering abortion care.
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Reproductive health and rights are deeply important to Native American women and our communities. A survey by the Southwest Women’s Law Center found the vast majority of percent of Native Americans in New Mexico believe women and families deserve to make their own health care decisions without government interference. This view is deeply reflective of Navajo values as we are a traditionally matrilineal culture. That means women in my community have always been empowered to make our own decisions about our bodies, lives, and families—and that certainly extends to abortion care.
But it’s not just systemic barriers to life-saving health care, our lives and wellness. I also think of the thousands of Native American women and girls who are missing and murdered each year. Last year alone, more than 5,600 Native American women and girls were reported missing, according to the FBI. Research shows that number is likely higher due to undercounting and the standards under which women are officially classified as missing. Thanks to the tireless leadership and activism of Native advocates across the U.S., and Congresswomen Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, progress has been made toward addressing this crisis with the recent signage of the Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, which would draw attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women, and provide funding to support our communities. This legislation shows why it is crucial that we have leaders in office who will protect our autonomy, economic security, and health, including our right to abortion care.
My late grandfather loved elections and he always voted in tribal, state and federal elections—this year, I voted in his honor. This year was pivotal for Indigenous women and families, as we struggle against a pandemic that is disproportionately harming our communities, along with generations of systemic neglect by the government. The solutions—to protecting our families, protecting Native women’s health and autonomy, protecting our lands—are there. Indigenous voters helped protect our democracy and swung the election in pivotal states. Now, it’s time for those in power to hear our voices and address our needs, even as we continue to fight oppression in other ways.
Terrelene Massey (Navajo) is the executive director of the Southwest Women’s Law Center based in New Mexico. She has been serving in this capacity since January 2019. Terrelene is a tribal member of the Navajo Nation. She is originally from Pinon, which is on the Navajo Nation, in Arizona. Terrelene holds a Juris Doctor from the University of New Mexico School of Law, and a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. She is licensed to practice law in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. Prior to the SWLC, Terrelene served as the Executive Director of the Navajo Division of Social Services. She was appointed by the President of the Navajo Nation, and confirmed by the Navajo Nation Council. She served in this capacity from May 2015-January 2019. Terrelene also previously worked as an attorney at Johnson Barnhouse & Keegan, LLP, and the New Mexico Legal Aid. Prior to attending law school. Terrelene also worked for the New Mexico Human Services Department where she managed tribal related projects impacting Native American health and human services programs. Terrelene is married, has 2 children, and a dog. She is fluent in the Navajo language.
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