Native Americans Scored Big Election Wins in Washington State and Beyond

On Tuesday, Puyallup tribe members celebrated a landmark police accountability initiative, as well as Native victories nationwide.

Stephanie Woodard November 8, 2018

Puyallup tribe member Chester Earl, whose cousin Jacqueline Salyers was shot and killed by police, gets the call that Washington state police reform ballot initiative has passed, at a multi-tribe gathering to celebrate electoral work in Tacoma Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by Martin Sherman)

TACO­MA, WASH. — Chester Earl, 45, and about 300 mem­bers of Wash­ing­ton state tribes — from Tulalip, Yaka­ma, Lum­mi, Quin­ault, Port Gam­ble S’K­lal­lam, Earl’s own Puyallup com­mu­ni­ty and more — are gath­ered at an elec­tion night par­ty in a Taco­ma cater­ing hall, singing, drum­ming, danc­ing, feast­ing and watch­ing returns from around the state and coun­try. It’s incred­i­ble,” Earl exclaims as the big news comes in: Ini­tia­tive 940, a Wash­ing­ton state bal­lot ini­tia­tive which approves new police reform mea­sures, has passed with more than 60 per­cent of the vote.

Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo and Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation will be heading to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent New Mexico and Kansas, respectively.

Earl and about 15 of the atten­dees have just returned from a two-week reser­va­tion-to-reser­va­tion tour, N8tive Vote 2018. The tour held ral­lies on the state’s 29 trib­al home­lands and encour­aged mem­bers to get to the polls, par­tic­u­lar­ly to say yes to I‑940, which, among oth­er reforms, makes it eas­i­er to pros­e­cute law enforce­ment offi­cers who mis­use dead­ly force.

As In These Times has pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed, Natives are killed by police at the high­est rate of any pop­u­la­tion group — which is rarely chron­i­cled in the media. One vic­tim was Earl’s cousin and trib­al mem­ber Jacque­line Saly­ers, a 32-year-old preg­nant moth­er of four, shot and killed in Jan­u­ary 2016 as she pulled out of a park­ing space. Police were seek­ing her boyfriend, who was in the pas­sen­ger seat. The offi­cer who shot her in the head claimed that the mov­ing car was life-threat­en­ing, which Salyers’s fam­i­ly dis­putes. The offi­cer was cleared of wrongdoing.

The shoot­ing gal­va­nized the Puyallup tribe to join with oth­er advo­cates to help craft new police account­abil­i­ty mea­sures. The group then gath­ered near­ly 360,000 sig­na­tures (100,000 more than need­ed) from peo­ple all across the state — not just on reser­va­tions — to bring a reform bill to the leg­is­la­ture. The bill requires that police offi­cers receive train­ing to de-esca­late sit­u­a­tions, rec­og­nize men­tal-health crises, and give first aid to those they harm. It also requires inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tions of dead­ly and harm­ful incidents.

The law also elim­i­nates the cur­rent lan­guage on the books in Wash­ing­ton that excus­es offi­cers for a killing unless they have act­ed with mal­ice,” which had put pros­e­cut­ing attor­neys in the dif­fi­cult posi­tion of try­ing to prove an officer’s men­tal state. A Seat­tle Times study showed that under that statute, 213 police-caused deaths from 2005 to 2015 result­ed in just one prosecution.

The leg­is­la­ture passed the bill in March, after which the state Supreme Court decid­ed it need­ed to be approved by vot­ers. The Puyallup tribe worked with Lum­mi and Quin­ault offi­cials to put togeth­er a get-out-the-vote tour, con­fi­dent they would earn pub­lic sup­port. I‑940 was offi­cial­ly endorsed by the state’s tribes, sev­er­al police asso­ci­a­tions, the Seat­tle Times and 10 oth­er news­pa­pers, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers of Wash­ing­ton and 22 more labor unions, pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal par­ties and elect­ed offi­cials, and some 100 church groups, edu­ca­tion orga­ni­za­tions, vet­er­ans asso­ci­a­tions and more.

The results give me such relief,” Salyers’s moth­er, Lisa Earl, says on elec­tion night. The peo­ple spoke. Jack­ie didn’t get killed and die in vain. We have worked so tire­less­ly for so long and have suc­ceed­ed in doing some­thing that will help pre­serve future gen­er­a­tions. She has been with me the whole way.”

Lisa Earl believes the new law will make every­one safer, build­ing trust between offi­cers and the pub­lic. We want to reach out and help every­one,” she says. I don’t know how I would feel if my tribe had not wrapped its arms around me with love after Jackie’s death. We want our police offi­cers to learn com­pas­sion. We want them to have the skills they need when they’re run­ning into sit­u­a­tions, per­haps with­out back­up. Nur­tur­ing is what we are about.”

The elec­tion night par­ty­go­ers also cel­e­brat­ed his­toric wins by Native Amer­i­can can­di­dates across the coun­try. Deb Haa­land of Lagu­na Pueblo and Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation will be head­ing to the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to rep­re­sent New Mex­i­co and Kansas, respec­tive­ly. Natives also won a slew of state and local races, includ­ing Yvette Isburg, who won the post of audi­tor for the Crow Creek Sioux reservation’s South Dako­ta coun­ty. Audi­tors, called recorders in some states, con­trol crit­i­cal on-the-ground imple­men­ta­tion of elections.

That’s impor­tant for Native vot­ers, who have been dis­en­fran­chised in a vari­ety of ways. For exam­ple, the near­est reg­is­tra­tion sites and polling places may be far from reser­va­tions. In North Dako­ta, his­tor­i­cal­ly high Native turnout proved the state couldn’t sup­press the Native vote, as it tried to do with an 11th-hour demand that vot­ers pro­vide IDs with detailed street address infor­ma­tion that trib­al mem­bers typ­i­cal­ly don’t have. Young Native vot­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed avid­ly in North Dako­ta, part of a nation­al swell of youth vot­er turnout.

Wash­ing­ton state’s tribes and trib­al mem­bers may have been eager to see I‑940 approved, but, more broad­ly, they want to ampli­fy the Native voice by increas­ing the num­ber of trib­al peo­ple who reg­is­ter and vote. Every­where the rez-to-rez tour went, it stressed par­tic­i­pa­tion and the pow­er of the vote. We’re stronger togeth­er,” says tour par­tic­i­pant Tim Reynon, 49, a Puyallup trib­al coun­cil mem­ber. He not­ed the I‑940 effort as proof. This was such an impor­tant elec­tion for us.”

Chester Earl adds that the tour began reassem­bling the statewide trib­al coali­tion that was instru­men­tal in defeat­ing Washington’s then‑U.S. Sen­a­tor in 2000, a Repub­li­can known as an Indi­an fight­er,” replac­ing him with Maria Cantwell, a Demo­c­rat who sits on the Senate’s Com­mit­tee on Indi­an Affairs and is per­ceived as respon­sive to Native issues.

The oth­er Wash­ing­ton’ being the way it is nowa­days,” Earl con­tin­ues, refer­ring to D.C., we need to elect peo­ple who will pro­tect the rights of Native peo­ple, women, LGBTQ peo­ple, immi­grants, and more.”

There’s a proven way to do that, Earl says: We will awak­en the Native vote, get our peo­ple reg­is­tered, and get them out to vote.”

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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