Graham Kilmer

Urban Native Leaders Promote the Vote

Tribal leaders and organizations encourage native voter turnout at community event.

By - Mar 2nd, 2024 04:02 pm

Anne Egan-Waukau. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

Local Native American leaders and organizations are trying to promote voting among tribal members in the Milwaukee area.

A community event was held Friday at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, 930 W.  Historic Mitchell St., underneath a mural commissioned by Wisconsin Conservation Voices as part of the Wisconsin Native Vote campaign, which has used the slogan “Sko Vote Den.”

The mural, painted by artist Christopher Sweet, was unveiled in 2022 to promote the campaign and encourage Native turnout. Mark Denning, a member of the Oneida Nation and a Native American cultural educator and speaker, noted that the mural features a jingle dress dancer representing healing. Also featured are seven children and an appeal to “Vote for the 7th Generation.”

This request captures the message of the campaign, which is to vote now in a way that improves the future for generations to come. This was also the message of speakers at the event.

Tribes need politicians to help them protect the land and water that is important to them, Denning said. So Native voters need to help elect politicians who will “do battle” with those that don’t represent their interests.

“Yesterday, 28 Sandhill Cranes came above my head. Without politicians and politics, that view might have never happened in my lifetime; they were on their way out.” Denning said. “After 180 years of absence, Sturgeon are now making their way through a cleaner Milwaukee River.”

The Ignace Indian Health Center served as another example for the organizers of why turning out the native vote is so important, as it receives funding from the state and federal government.

The center was established in 1973 by Dr. Gerald Ignace, providing culturally competent health care, dental care, physical therapy and mental health care for native Americans in Milwaukee and from across Wisconsin.

“This country’s long history of the forced removal of Indian nations, and oppression has had lasting effects on the physical and mental health of native people,” said Steve Ninham, chair of the health center board. “Natives suffer from obesity, depression, and heart disease at higher rates than other populations. Additionally, our people have some of the highest rates of suicide.”

Still, Ninham said, his community’s resiliency gives him hope. “Each and every one of us has the power to use our voice to vote for the health of our people,” Ninham said. “We must use our voices at the polls, to vote for quality health care, and for the future of our children.”

Anne Egan-Waukau, an Ignace Center board member and Urban Native Vote organizer, said that once when she tried to vote a poll worker told her “Indians can’t vote” after finding out she was a Menominee. The worker was insistent that it was against the law for her to vote, Egan-Waukau said, and had she not been equally sure of her right to vote she may have been turned away. “And that’s my story of why I do this,” Waukau said.

Disenfranchisement remains a challenge for Native people, Waukau said, even on the reservations. Whether it’s because the polling place is too far away or because of “disinformation” like that which she encountered.

“It’s more important than ever that our voices are heard,” Waukau said. “Our language, our wild rice, our sovereignty and our health care depend on it.”

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