Skip to main content

The Courage to Converse: Why I Vote

By Jennifer Garbow, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency

American Indians call this continent on which we live Turtle Island. Originally, Ojibwe people lived on the east coast of what is now called the United States. Then a prophecy came that instructed the people to migrate west. The Ojibwe people traveled up the Saint Lawrence River around the Great Lakes and followed rivers and lakes inland until we came to the place where the food grew on the water. This is how we arrived in Minnesota and why wild rice, manoomin, is considered a sacred food and an important part of Ojibwe life and culture.

Canoe and Minnesota wild rice
Canoe and Minnesota wild rice
Photo credit: Eli Sagor

At the 2016 Qualey-Skjervold Professional Development Conference, America Bracho, M.D., engaged us in a large group activity. She asked a question about our identity and we clustered in different groups based on how we self-identified. To a question of where our parents were born, I stood in a small “other” group.

On my paternal side of my family, my grandmother was born in 1916 in the Village of Nett Lake on the Bois Forte Reservation in northern Minnesota. My people are Zagaakwaandagowininiwag: “Men of the Thick Fir-Woods.” My grandmother and all of her ancestors before her were born in the United States, but she was not a citizen until 1924, when she was eight years old.

In 1924, Congress granted citizenship to all American Indians born in the United States, which is known as the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Despite this act of Congress, many states did not recognize American Indians as full citizens and did not allow them to vote. This is where it gets complicated… the dance between states and the federal government is a complex and painful one.

Piece by piece, states each came to their own recognition of American Indians as full citizens, often “nudged” along by necessity, such as when the U.S. Army needed more soldiers. However, when 25,000 American Indian veterans returned home from World War II, they found they were not able to vote.

Miguel Trujillo of Isleta Pueblo and his daughter. Trujillo was a WWII veteran of the Marine Corps who fought in 1948 for the right of American Indians to vote in New Mexico. Read more at A History of Indian Voting Rights and Why It’s Important to Vote.

In fact, up until 1957, just one generation ago, some states continued to bar American Indians from voting. The 1965 Voting Rights Act finally put an end to individual states’ claims on whether or not Natives were allowed to vote; three short years later, my father was drafted to Vietnam.

I did not have the opportunity to discuss voting rights, civil rights, or human rights with my grandmother; our time together was short. And like many Ojibwe people of her generation, she did not like to talk about the federal and state policies and laws that caused such immense pain for her family and community. Once my father asked my grandmother about her experience at boarding school, and he was met with silence; he saw the expression on her face and never asked again.

Each one of us has a unique and powerful story about how we came to our state. My story is the story of the Ojibwe people, and of my grandmother, Elizabeth Mary (Benner) Fisette from the little Village of Nett Lake, Minnesota; she survived so that I may thrive and not take for granted opportunities like the right to vote, or to lead a good life, minwaadizi.

Harvesting wild rice in the Kakagon Sloughs.
Photo credit: David Grant Noble

I travel back to my ancestral homeland on the shores of Nett Lake every August to send off the ricers with prayers for safety and hopes for a bountiful harvest. It is in these small ways of exercising and practicing cultural activities as well as in the big ways of getting out and voting that I honor the resilience, struggles, and the beauty of my grandmother’s life.

Grandma Elizabeth and me at my wedding in August 2007.

Print Friendly and PDF