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The Power of the “Something Else” Vote

Native voters continue to be othered by the media, but the election results prove their vote has never been stronger.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
A woman protesting police violence in Minneapolis in June wears a flag bearing the names of Native American people who have been killed by officers.

For all the praise that CNN’s graphics department has been raking in for its Trump-correcting chyrons, it was another visual from election night that caught my eye. Providing a breakdown of the Trump electorate by race, the outlet listed the voter groups as white, Black, Asian, Latino, and “Something Else.”

Native people responded in kind by meme-ing the misnomer, printing it on their masks, suggesting it as a new nickname for the Washington NFL team, and reminding anyone who would listen that we really are “something else.” The Native American Journalists Association (of which I am a member) took the misstep more seriously, requesting that CNN apologize and meet with the association for a training session on how to make its newsroom’s staff makeup—not just its coverage—more inclusive of Native people.

The slipup is a worthwhile reminder for newsrooms that Indian Country is a richer well to draw from than the poverty-porn coverage it’s limited to by many national outlets. But more pressingly, it’s an urgent case to note that the “Something Else” vote might just prove to be one of the most important voting blocs in the nation this election—a fact proven by the last-minute pushes by Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden to win the votes of Native communities in crucial swing states.

As Arizona Republic Indigenous affairs reporter Shondiin Silversmith (Diné) pointed out, Native voters in the state—one of several that have (thus far) surprisingly flipped blue—consistently voted for the Democratic candidate. Based on the current returns, the districts containing Arizona’s 22 tribal nations (Native voters make up 5.6 percent of eligible voters in the state) all leaned toward Biden. Notably, the Tohono O’odham, situated along the Mexico-U.S. border and currently engulfed in a fight with the Trump administration over the desecration of its land for Republicans’ border wall, offered a full-throated rejection of the GOP.

Wisconsin, leaning to Biden by roughly 20,000 votes, also saw its tribal nations help his campaign. Ashland County, which intersects with the Bad River Reservation (home of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians), went blue by 900 votes. Menominee County, surrounded on every side by Republican districts and home to the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, was dominantly Democratic, with Biden collecting 82 percent of the vote. The same held true in New Mexico, California, and Minnesota, three states with large Native populations that Biden won easily. Even in South Dakota, where Trump won commandingly, Oglala Lakota County proved to be one of the most dependably Democratic counties in the nation, with 88.4 percent of voters going for Biden.

Conversely, Native voters also aided in providing Trump and other Republican candidates victories in North Carolina, a crucial swing state. There, the Lumbee Tribe, one of eight tribes in North Carolina, garnered attention for leaning toward Trump for the second straight election—though so did the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as all five counties that fall within the Qualla Boundary easily went for both Trump and Republican Senator Thom Tillis. Although the state still has outstanding ballots to be counted, both Trump’s and Tillis’s leads appear to be sizable enough to secure the state for Republicans. New Mexico’s San Juan County, which includes part of the Navajo Nation, sided for Trump by 28 points.

Voters also made history this year by electing a record number of Indigenous candidates to Congress, with six Native candidates winning a spot in the House. This included all four incumbents—Democrats Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas, and Oklahoma Republicans Markwayne Mullin and Tom Cole—along with two newcomers: New Mexico Republican and Trump backer Yvette Herrell and Hawaiian Democrat Kaiali’i Kahele. The increase in Native congressional representation is nice to see, though what the caucus will be able to agree upon, much less achieve, with such a stark ideological split is unclear.

As the election cycle slowly winds to a close, both the media and the rest of the country would do well to remember Indian Country exists and isn’t a monolith. Another way of putting it: Try something else.