Native organizations in Juneau and across the country are working to exert their political clout by encouraging their members to vote.
A national initiative known as Native Vote 2004 is active this year in Alaska and several other states. The program is sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest tribal government organization in the United States.
The local Native Vote 2004 effort held its first candidate forum in Juneau on Tuesday to spotlight Native issues. The forum featured local and statewide candidates.
"If you don't vote, then they don't listen to you - that's the bottom line," said Nicole Hallingstad, a member of the Native Vote 2004 committee. She said about 250 people attended the Tuesday forum.
Hallingstad, who also serves as vice president and corporate secretary for Sealaska Corp., the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, said the initiative is a nonpartisan effort to register voters, inform them on the issues and get them to vote by absentee ballot or on Election Day.
"We want the Native community to put the power of the ballot to use for the good of our people," she said.
Hallingstad said the local committee also is organizing transportation pools to get people to their polling places. It also is calling voters on the days leading up to the Nov. 2 election to remind them to make it to the polls.
According to the National Congress of American Indians Web site, there are 69,595 eligible Alaska Native voters. That accounts for 16 percent of eligible voters in the state.
"We have so little data on the Native vote," said Jackie Johnson, executive director of the NCAI. "But we make a significant difference in swing states and senatorial races."
She said the organization is aiming to register 1 million new voters, with the additional goal of registering 60 percent of the eligible Native voters in each state.
Johnson said the absentee ballot effort is critical because so many American Indians and Alaska Natives live in remote areas of the country, making it difficult for them to show up on Election Day. She said the organization faces some long-standing cultural hurdles related to distrust of the government.
She said many feel disenfranchised by the government because of historical and current conflicts between tribes and the U.S. government.
For a long time the only relationship American Indians had outside their tribes was with the federal government, so most haven't had to work with local governments, she said. This has led to voter apathy in local elections, she said.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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