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In Trump v. Biden, Native American voters played a crucial role. It's time to recognize that.

Key battleground states, like Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina, experienced the power of Indigenous activism and ballots.
Image: Horse riders head to the polls in Kayenta, Ariz., Nov. 3, 2020. (Sharon Chischilly/The New York Times)
Horse riders head to the polls in Kayenta, Ariz., in the Navajo Nation, on Nov. 3.Sharon Chischilly / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

On Election Night, CNN broadcast a table showing the results of an exit poll that broke the national electorate down into racial demographics. It read: White — 65 percent, Latino — 13 percent, Black — 12 percent, Something else — 6 percent, Asian — 3 percent. Almost immediately, that second-to-last category, "Something Else," provoked an online uproar among the digital denizens of Indian Country.

In this grand scramble for votes in elections that are increasingly decided by razor-thin margins, Native people are almost always overlooked or forgotten.

We were outraged that CNN had, rather clumsily, grouped the First Peoples of this land in with — well, literally everyone else. "In an election largely driven by race, the media still fails to accurately cover voters of color," Cherokee activist Rebecca Nagle tweeted alongside a photo of the segment. "For Native Americans, we're not even named."

Nearly every post on the Indigenous internet was, for a hot minute, contributing to the "Something Else" discourse. "Last night I went to bed Indigenous," said @kevin_flyingsky on TikTok. "And this morning I woke up something else!" Someone on Facebook posted a screenshot of the CNN table with "Something Else" crossed out and "Cousins" written in, instead. I even joined in, changing my name on Twitter to, you guessed it, Something Else.

As with most internet phenomena, the posts circled an important truth. Native people are often erased in the media and elections. Every two years, the national parties devote enormous resources to mobilizing their bases and persuading swing voters. Campaigns microtarget voters by geography, race, gender, age, religion, educational background, class and much more, all of which the media covers like it's the Super Bowl. But in this grand scramble for votes in elections that are increasingly decided by razor-thin margins, Native people are almost always overlooked or forgotten.

This isn't because Native people don't care about elections. In Rapid City and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the nonprofit group IllumiNatives put up billboards that read: "Democracy is Indigenous." On Election Day, citizens of the Navajo Nation paraded their horses to the polls. On the White Mountain Apache reservation, crown dancers led voters to the ballot box. And although data quality varies by state, Native voter turnout across the country increased significantly. Among the Navajo Nation, where more data is available, many precincts saw 40 percent to 60 percent increases in participation, according to an analysis by Arizona Democratic Party operative Keith Brekhus.

Yet the prevailing electoral calculus says those votes are too few to bother putting much effort into pursuing. After all, in the 2010 census, Native Americans accounted for just 1.7 percent of the U.S. population. Native people also face many barriers to voting, including state laws that can prohibit the use of tribal IDs, restrictions preventing people from using post office boxes to register (some parts of Indian reservations lack street addresses), a dearth of voting materials in Indigenous languages, long distances to polling places without transportation and much more.

Add in that many states with significant Native populations — who tend to prefer the Democratic Party by about 25 points — also happen to be Republican strongholds, and devoting attention and resources becomes an even harder sell for many campaigns. In North and South Dakota, for example, where Native Americans are more than 5 percent of the population, Democrats lost the presidential race by 34 and 26 points, respectively.

But the outcome of the 2020 election proved that line of thinking wrong. In key battleground states, like Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina, Native voters played an important, though underappreciated, role in shaping the outcome.

Take Wisconsin, home to about 86,000 Native Americans, which Joe Biden won by about 20,000 votes. Biden won 1,303 votes for 82 percent of the vote in Menominee County, home of the Menominee Nation — his highest vote share of any county in the state.

Or take Bayfield County in northern Wisconsin, home to the Red Cliff Ojibwe, where about 11 percent of the population is Native. Biden won there, as well, 6,147 votes to 4,617. About 1,000 votes in Menominee County and about 1,500 votes in Bayfield County look an awful lot more important when Biden's margin of victory is in the low five figures.

Or consider the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the United States, which stretches across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. In Arizona, which Biden won by just 10,500 votes, it's hard not to argue that the Native vote in general (6 percent of the state's population) and the Navajo vote in particular (67,000 people of voting age) weren't crucial.

Voters wait to enter the Shiprock Chapter House in New Mexico in the Navajo Nation to cast ballots Nov. 3.Noel Lyn Smith / The Daily Times via USA Today Network

Overall, according to Brekhus' reading of the data, precincts on the Navajo Nation averaged about 84 percent for Biden and 14 percent for President Donald Trump. With Arizona decided by so few votes, the Navajo may legitimately claim that their ballots made the difference. Biden and other Democrats likely couldn't have carried Arizona — its 11 Electoral College votes and its Senate seat — without them.

But we also have to talk about Robeson County, North Carolina, where members of the Lumbee tribe are 40 percent of the electorate. The Lumbee, who aren't recognized as a tribe by the federal government, have been seeking legal affirmation of their nation and identity for decades. Ahead of the election, Trump held a rally in Robeson County promising the Lumbee recognition if he won.

Trump won 59 percent of the vote and Biden won just 40 percent, compared to 58 percent for President Barack Obama and 41 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012. The Lumbee, as Laguna Pueblo journalist Jenni Monet predicted, played a significant part in delivering North Carolina, its 15 Electoral College votes and a Senate seat to the Grand Old Party.

Trump, for all his faults, understood the value of the Lumbee vote, which helped him win a state that many polls had him losing. His willingness to pursue the Lumbee with explicit and concrete policies that would benefit Native people and their tribes suggests that future campaigns would be wise to do the same.

Indeed, around the country, Native people seem to vote at relatively high rates. Although candidates may have been able to plead ignorance about this in the past, wonks like University of Michigan professor Stephanie Fryberg are providing detailed survey-backed research. The Indigenous Futures Project — based on a survey of 6,400 Native people representing 401 tribes — found, for example, that 77 percent of respondents said they voted in the last election (though, to be clear, a poll isn't a perfect proxy for the real world, because people can lie, forget or otherwise misrepresent their actions).

If nothing else, campaigns and the journalists who cover them should pay more attention to Indian Country because the stories — and memes — are just too damn good: Navajos on horseback, crown dancers in full regalia, a coordinated clapback heard round the World Wide Web. I mean, us Natives, we're really something else, right?