Several recent experiences with the staff members of local politicians have made it clear to me that Native Americans face both additional scrutiny and a level of socially accepted ignorance that most groups don’t have to deal with.
Here in Arizona, there are 22 District Tribal Nations, 21 of which are federally recognized. This fact seems to be more of a burden than an asset, even to Democrats who preach diversity and claim to champion underrepresented populations.
As a politically active, indigenous woman living in Arizona’s Congressional District 2, which according to United States Census is 1.6 percent Native American, I often have doors shut in my face.
Recently I attended a Democratic congressional candidate forum in my district. One of the five candidates, Ann Kirkpatrick, was greeted with a small protest for having pushed for the removal of federal protections for Oak Flat, land sacred to the San Carlos Apache, to make way for a copper mine in the Congressional district she represented, before she moved to District 2.
I was not with their group, but I was given a sign, which I held, just like many of my counterparts, who held signs about healthcare, immigration and taxes.
After the forum, I attempted to speak to Kirkpatrick, but her daughter physically blocked me from the candidate. It was clear that the candidate had directed her daughter to “distract me.” It wasn’t until I pointed out that in a roomful of over 400 people, not only was I one of only a few people of color in attendance but one of maybe five Native Americans represented, did she consent to let me speak to the candidate.
As we approached Kirkpatrick I was then asked to “please be respectful” and “watch your tone,” which was unnecessary. I addressed how offensive and disrespectful that request was, but it continued.
Why was I given additional rules when engaging with a candidate who is vying for my vote? What type of invisible Native American policies are politicians directing their staff to adhere to?
This type of gatekeeping and disregard for indigenous people is not isolated to simply one politician or even one party.
The regional coordinator at Republican Sen. John McCain’s local office told me that if I had questions about the increase in Border Patrol agents being assigned to the Tohono O’odham reservation, where I work, that I should really speak with my own tribal leaders.
When pressed to discuss additional issues that were impacting the 22 Tribal Nations of Arizona, I was told that the one person on their staff who deals with those specific issues is in the D.C. Office. In short, don’t bother asking us those questions in this office.
As an Arizona resident, aren’t I Sen. McCain’s constituent? The regional coordinator didn’t even bother pretend to take notes about our concerns during a scheduled, sit-down meeting with myself and other tribal members.
Even on the state level, where politicians and their staff have the opportunity to become more familiar with the populations they serve, I’ve been discouraged.
When calling Democratic state Rep. Charlene Fernandez’s office to ask how many miles of her district is shared with the United States-Mexico Border, I encountered a staffer who wasn’t familiar with my nation’s reservation, though it is the size of Connecticut and sits within her district.
Despite the original intention of my call, to ask questions about their website, I was still asked if I had access to the internet. When I jokingly reminded her that we had just spent 10 minutes combing through two websites over the phone looking for the answer to my question, she hesitatingly said, “I didn’t know if… you guys had the internet down there.”
Yes, it is difficult to know about all 500 tribes in the United States. But for local politicians, it is their job to know more about the local indigenous tribes they’re serving, especially when proposing legislation that impacts or targets our communities.
It is not enough for politicians to speak about the respect they have for indigenous people and their commitment to serving underrepresented populations. They must ensure that the people who represent them also see their indigenous community as an asset, rather than a burden.
Staffers must be directed by the politicians they serve to “be respectful” and “watch your tone” when addressing their indigenous constituents.
Gabriella Cazares-Kelly is an educator, community organizer and Public Voices fellow for the OpEd Project. She is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation.