DULUTH – The chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe took to the stage at a news conference in Duluth on Sunday and repeated what she has been telling band members for weeks: “Get out there and vote, and take your friends and relatives to vote.”

“We know in Indian Country when we get out the vote, we make the difference,” Melanie Benjamin said.

Minnesota’s nearly 80,000 Indigenous voters are being courted like never before in an election where increased turnout could prove decisive. In recent weeks the Red Lake Nation reported registering 5,500 new voters, while an event on the Leech Lake Reservation netted 500 new voter registrations.

Though turnout among Native Americans has historically been some 10% lower than other groups and a third are not registered to vote, according to the National Congress of American Indians, many are more motivated this time around.

“We haven’t always had that right, that opportunity,” Benjamin said. “We want to make sure that we’re sitting at the table to talk about the issues that are dear to us, which is our reservation boundaries, our inherent sovereign right as governments, our language, our traditions and our value systems.”

After sitting out in the past, whether due to disenfranchisement or disinterest in nontribal politics, the stakes have been raised in this election. Race and the government’s treatment of Black, Indigenous and people of color remain prominent issues following the death of George Floyd.

While about 114,350 Minnesotans — 2% of the state population — identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, federal policies have an outsized impact on tribal members and the state’s 11 federally recognized tribes.

“Native folks have more at stake, in my opinion, than any other community — our lives are touched more by government than anyone else’s,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who is the highest-ranking Native American woman holding statewide office in the country. “I truly think people know this is the most important election of our lifetime.”

‘Folks are engaged’

Flanagan has been working on voter engagement in Indigenous communities for decades and said she has seen close races decided by those voters.

Voting-age Native Americans make up 3.6% of the electorate in the Seventh Congressional District covering the western third of the state, according to data from the nonpartisan Native Vote project. Those voters could shift the balance toward DFL Rep. Collin Peterson or his Republican challenger, Michelle Fischbach, in one of the state’s most closely watched races.

“Voter registration and turnout [among Indigenous people] was key in flipping a lot of elections starting about a decade ago,” Flanagan said. “Because of our relationship with the federal government, these races matter tremendously.”

Tribes and Native American advocacy groups have been boosting their outreach this year. On Thursday the American Indian OIC in south Minneapolis held an early voting event that drew hundreds throughout the day.

“We wanted to remind folks we have power, we have strength in our community,” said Joe Hobot, CEO of the nonprofit and a descendant of the Hunkpapa Band of the Lakota Nation. “Most of our community is located in the Third Precinct — folks are galvanized.”

Similar events and free rides to polls have been planned on reservations around the state.

The lieutenant governor took part in the recent Leech Lake Reservation voter registration drive and said she saw a lot of energy among those who attended.

“Folks are engaged,” Flanagan said. “When we’re talking about issues that matter with Native communities — investing in education and protecting the environment — those are issues that speak to voters very broadly.”

Looking at maps of election results, the state’s reservations are often pockets of blue surrounded by the typical rural red. Indigenous voters, at least in Minnesota, tend to vote for Democrats.

But just 20% of the state’s Native American residents live on reservations. More than a quarter live in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, and the rest are spread across rural and urban areas around the state, according to a recent study by the Legislature.

“I would say the majority of tribes vote Democrat, but we’re not a monolithic bloc of voters, there’s people all over the place,” said Tadd Johnson, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the U’s first director of American Indian Tribal Relations. “Tribes are pretty motivated this year with COVID, and it’s been a very unusual mood in the country. I think they’ll be out in full force this year.”

Johnson, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa who has worked as a tribal lawyer and for the U.S. House of Representatives, said as more Native Americans are elected, voter turnout has increased.

“I think it helps to see some of their own faces,” he said.

While many tribal leaders are encouraging members to vote and some have publicly backed candidates, others, like the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have not made any endorsements.

Johnson learned from a mentor early in his career on Capitol Hill that “we have to work with whoever is in power.”

“A lot of tribes are very careful about that because they don’t know what’s going to come down the pipe,” he said. “Some of the old-timers I talk to think Obama was very good on Indian affairs, but as far as making huge changes, Nixon kicked a lot of things into gear.”

In the current era of federal-tribal relations there is a focus on sovereignty and self-determination that tribes have an interest in preserving, and expanding, no matter who is in office.

“We need folks on both sides of the aisle,” Johnson said. “When the Senate is run by Republicans we need Native American staffers in there who know a lot of Indian law and policy.”

Motivated voters

Donna Bergstrom grew up in a Republican household, and her service in the U.S. Marine Corps only strengthened her commitment to the Constitution and ideals of limited government.

“Less government and responsible citizenship brought my family to the Republican Party,” said Bergstrom, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa who was the Republican lieutenant governor nominee in 2018. “On the reservations there’s a sense of ‘I don’t want the government all over me.’ We certainly had enough of that in the boarding-school era.”

Bergstrom is again running to become one of the first Native American women in the Minnesota Senate, representing Duluth in Senate District 7. It’s an uphill battle, given Duluth’s reliably DFL tilt, but she sees an opportunity to make gains on her 2016 run.

Education remains a major issue among Indigenous voters Bergstrom talks to, along with safety and the opioid epidemic. Native Americans also serve in the military at higher rates than other groups, making veterans’ issues important motivators at the ballot box.

“There’s some sentiment of ‘Why should I vote? I live on the reservation or go back and forth,’ but there has been some significant outreach,” she said. “Having myself on the 2018 ticket and the current lieutenant governor brought an awareness — it means we can be engaged and we can be involved.”

Duluth City Council Member Renee Van Nett, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, has been rallying voters for Biden and other DFL candidates. She’s hearing a lot of Indigenous folks say they sat out past elections but are planning to vote this year — or already voted early, in many cases.

“It matters. It mattered before, but it really matters now,” she said. “We’re on the menu if we’re not making decisions.”