Postal Updates

Navajo Nation embraces the right to vote in person and by mail

Jun 17, 2024, 8 AM
The Navajo Nation in the United States has embraced the right to vote for decades. Shown are 2024 election flyers pinned to a bulletin board at the U.S. post office inside the Gap Trading Post in Gap, Ariz. Photos by Allen Abel.

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

The magnificent landscape of the Navajo Nation enfolds towering mesas, soaring ravens, and cows that graze so far from the highway that no one can hear them moo. It is a land of sand and sanctuary, where thousands of families endure a sun-scorched existence without running water or electricity, detached from the modern electric utility grid but firmly anchored to the land.

Generations ago, after the Long Walk of the 1860s forced the Navajo to forsake their ancestral territories before being permitted to return to a swath of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico that the white man didn’t want, a family needed only a few sheep; an earthen, octagonal hogan that opened to the rising sun; and a trading post where they could barter their wool and their weavings for flour and cooking oil.

In June 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, but it was not until 1948 that the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the state’s indigenous people were not under federal guardianship. The Navajo embraced a right that should have been theirs long before.

“Voting has really become a part of the Navajo people,” Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Human Rights Commission, told Linn’s Stamp News by phone from St. Michaels, Ariz. “We as a people grabbed on to it and made it ours because we see voting as a fundamental part of decision-making and we’re very proud of the time when we were finally allowed to vote on measures that directly affected the Navajo Nation.”

But the 21st century has brought great changes to the way that the Navajo and other isolated Native Americans cast their ballots.

This year, with Arizona a pivotal state in the contest for the presidency and control of the United States Senate, and with the integrity of mail-in ballots a tinderbox nationwide, the stark rural nature of what the Navajo call “the Rez” (the Reservation) is fraught with electoral importance.

“Citizenship is supposed to be by definition your right to vote in your own community,” Gorman said. “I am very comfortable with our Navajo elections because when I enter the polling place my relatives are manning the polling place and they say ‘He’s here, he always votes here’ without having to wrap ourselves in the need for me to verify who I am.”

“But when it comes to state, federal and county elections,” Gorman continued, “it’s ramped up with all these requirements and one of them is to show an ID card to ensure that you have an address. Ever since I turned 18, I would just say ‘I live 10 miles north of Nazlini Chapter’ and I could cast my ballot without being questioned. But the last primary, I was told I can’t cast my ballot anymore as ‘10 miles north of Nazlini Chapter.’ Conforming with laws that are foreign to us, that is a big challenge.”

“We have one hundred and ten chapters in the Navajo Nation,” said Lee Yazzie Jr., who is running for a third term as a member in the government of the Bodaway Gap Chapter of the Navajo Nation, an hour’s drive north of Flagstaff, Ariz., where a Linn’s reporter was traveling in late May. (Yazzie gives his address as “the octagon with no water or electricity behind the Gap trading post.”)

“The reason why people need addresses is to determine that so and so has a real address so that their vote will be counted, and to show that we still exist on the Navajo Nation,” Yazzie said. “Native Americans are still not well respected.”

“A lot of our people prefer to cast their votes in person because the postal service may not get to the right destination wherever they are,” Yazzie explained. “People in cities have street addresses. We live in rural areas with dirt roads, and the postal service doesn’t go there.”

About 15 years ago, according to a Navajo man named M. C. Baldwin, “the Navajo Nation said, ‘We’ve got to get serious about this.’ ”

In a rare leap of alacrity, the tribal government soon hired Baldwin to serve as its rural addressing coordinator within the Division of Community Development. They gave him a gasoline-powered hammer and sent him out to erect street signs in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s still slow going because there are a lot of other priorities,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes it feels like we’re spinning wheels in the mud. We have a lot of roads that don’t even have names to put on a sign. So, the chapter has to pass a resolution to give them a name and that gives them the green light to purchase a sign.”

“But if you have a given road out in the boonies, that road must have four or more addressable structures, and then that road can have a name, and not just any name,” Baldwin said. “They can’t choose Navajo names, they can’t use numbers, they can’t use [Spanish] — they must use just a basic English name. They won’t accept ‘two and a half miles west of the creek’ on your driver’s license.”

(When Linn’s asked for his residential address, Baldwin stated he lives “one point two miles northwest of Exit 225 on I-40 in Diablo Canyon.”)

“Right now, if the entire Navajo Nation including Utah and New Mexico had standard street addresses,” Baldwin said, “we still would not have home mail delivery because that is the purview of the U. S. government and they must establish a ZIP Code for that area. We want to get it to the point of U.S. postal compliance, but we have no control over that.”

“If you don’t have an acceptable address, how do you vote?” Baldwin was asked.

“You don’t!” he exclaimed.

“Rural addressing is a very tough issue,” Yazzie said. “We don’t have the manpower to go door to door. The main factor is to pay community members to do the addressing, but we don’t have the money for that.”

After 15 years, Baldwin and his gas-powered hammer have made some progress in putting up street signs around Shiprock, N.M. This leaves 109 chapters still to be delineated and 27,000 square miles of breathtakingly beautiful rock lands to be conformed to modern cartography.

“We are more than 400,000 people,” Baldwin said. “At the rate that we’re going, it’ll probably take another 10 years.”

“But here’s an idea,” he concluded. “If you become a millionaire and donate $58 million to the Navajo Nation, we’ll get it done in less than two.”

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