Above photo: Courtesy of Rain Bear Stands Last.
An advocacy group for Native Americans is putting up billboards in various states to oppose measures that it says would increase voting restrictions.
The campaign launched by the Global Indigenous Council comes as more state legislatures are considering voting laws like the one in Georgia that sparked corporate backlash.
Tom Rodgers, president of the Global Indigenous Council and an enrolled Blackfeet tribal member, said the goal of the campaign is to draw attention to bills that would limit the number of available polling stations and ballot drop-off spots, calling the measures especially harmful to Native Americans who may not have access to the remaining voting locations.
Such legislation, he added, is opening painful wounds for Native Americans, who faced obstacles to voting for years even after federal protections were put in place.
“It’s truly a teachable moment of history, and it’s repeating itself again,” Rodgers told The Hill. “The Jim Crow of the West. We were already historically subject to restrictions on our ability to have an equal opportunity to vote.”
He said some states put up barriers to voting in the past by requiring residents to pay taxes and own property before they could vote, disenfranchising younger and poorer voters.
Now, more than 360 bills that would limit voting rights have been introduced in 47 states this legislative session, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Rodgers said his group’s campaign is targeting states with a significant Native American population that have a historical record of voting rights discrimination. The goal of the billboards, he said, is to encourage residents in Arizona, Georgia, Montana and Nevada to advocate against certain bills in their state legislatures.
In his criticism of restrictions on mail-in voting, Rodgers said the long distances many Native Americans need to travel to reach polling locations can unjustly impact those populations. In Montana, for example, more than 78,000 residents, or 6.5 percent of the state population, are Native American.
Billboards were first put up in Phoenix last week, and Rodgers said the council will move on to Atlanta next week and Montana the week after.
“There is a lot of focus on the South, as there should be…but it is now prevalent across the United States,” Rodgers said.
The billboard shows an image of tombstones for students who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The location was the first government-run boarding school for Native American children designed to assimilate the students into white society, according to the Carlisle Indian School Project, which seeks to maintain and honor the legacy of those who attended the school.
The school’s motto was “kill the Indian” and “save the man,” according to the National Park Service, which said at least 168 students at the school died of various diseases.
“They were separated from their parents, from their culture, from their land,” Rodgers said.
He said the campaign is designed to teach others about how Native populations were mistreated in the past through assimilation measures like the school and how that mistreatment lingers through voting restrictions.
“We’re more than museums on your walls – we’re just people that you’ve chosen not to see for far too long,” he said. “So you put us away on reservations, put us away in your attic, in your basement, and ultimately you put us away in your graveyard.”
The billboard campaign comes on the heels of the council’s efforts to pressure senators to confirm now-former Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to lead the Interior Department as the first Native American Cabinet secretary. The Senate confirmed Haaland in mid-March in a 51-40 vote, with nine senators absent.