SPARKS, Nev. - Over the last few months, the chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Alan Melendez, said his group has received a lot of attention from Democratic presidential candidates.
“Not a day goes by that we don't get a call from somebody wanting us to attend a function or two or trying to become involved in our [community],” said Melendez.
The strategy could pay off. While the Native American population in the country remains relatively small, at about 1.5 percent of the general population, they make up a sizable portion of eligible voters in several states or districts, according to data from the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI. The numbers continue to grow.
“[The population] has grown 27 percent since the year 2000. We're a younger crowd that is getting more visible, more educated, more active,” said Kevin Allis, CEO of NCAI.
As more Native Americans gain access to the polls, the voting bloc, which has previously complained about being overlooked, could be pivotal in key primary states like Iowa, Arizona, and Nevada. The latter two states have relatively large Native populations (Nevada has 27 federally recognized tribes) that could make a significant difference.
During the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reportedly earned 83.3 percent of the Indian Settlement precinct votes after visiting the Meskwaki settlement. He has credited those votes for helping him almost beat U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“From top to bottom, in all the different elections, you can see where the margins are that thin. We really have an opportunity to make a difference,” Allis said.
To improve turnout, many Native American voting activists have called for better access to the polls. They say the issue is most pressing in rural areas where some tribal lands may be more than a hundred miles away from a polling location.
“I think Native Americans sometimes are reluctant to go to try to find where the voting site is in the city. But if we can bring those voting sites out to reservation lands, I think we'll have a better turnout,” said Melendez.
Some of the main issues for Indian country include climate change and addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. But, above all, they’ve called for the federal government to honor the agreements laid out in treaties with Native American nations.
“Native Americans have given up millions of acres of land in exchange for those promises of health care, of law enforcement, all those different governmental needs that we have,” said Melendez.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro have rolled out policy proposals targeting Native Americans. They touched on some of those plans in August during the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, which was organized by the non-profit organization, Four Directions Inc., and considered the first forum in history to exclusively cover Native American issues.
There, Warren apologized for her highly criticized use of a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry. Her proposal was largely seen as an attempt to soften the blowback from the controversy, which angered many Native Americans and continues to haunt her campaign.
Allis hopes more candidates will continue to reach out to them.
“We really have an opportunity to make a difference, and the candidates are running for office really need to understand that those numbers matter and can win or lose a particular election,” he said.
Four Directions is planning to hold a second Native American presidential forum early next year.