By Rachel Wilf, MEP Civic Engagement Project Intern
On June 13th I traveled in a minivan for four and a half hours through the rolling hills of northern Minnesota. The destination? The White Earth Pow Wow in White Earth, MN. The goal of the MEP field team? Register 40 voters for the upcoming election.
Having never been to a pow wow, or even to a reservation, I felt a little bit like a fish out of water. The pow wow was a mix of family reunion and county fair. People walked from vendor to vendor munching on frybread and occasionally greeting one another with hugs or shouts. Many of the passersby wore traditional regalia in preparation for the Grand Entry, from full-on headdresses adorned with eagle feathers to bright dresses covered in tinkling, engraved silver cow-bells. Throughout the pow wow, an announcer’s authoritative voice was an overlay to the throbbing pulse produced by the drummers.
Amidst this atmosphere, MEP set to work registering voters.
We confronted some challenges that are unique to the Native community. In addition to the usual registration reticence, many Native Americans abstain from voting because they don’t want to participate in what they see as an illegitimate U.S. government. Particularly for some of the elders, the memories of past crimes against their culture remain too fresh, too painful. It took me a while to accept that it was their right not to vote just as it was their right to vote. All I could do was offer them a card–I couldn’t presume I knew what was best for them.
Despite the occasional negative response, the many positive encounters I had left me feeling that the Native American community is willing to engage in this election to bring about much-needed change. There was the eighteen year old who persuaded three of her hesitant friends to register, the aunt who took cards to give to her nephews (saying, “I’ll drag them to the polls if I have to”), the 77 year old man who filled out a registration form for the first time in his life.
We reached our goal of registered voters for the event, but a number can’t sum up the experience of being at the White Earth Pow Wow. I can still smell the wood smoke, hear the haunting tunes of the drummers, and taste the cinnamon frybread. I was lucky to have been there. If you ever have the chance, I encourage you to engage with the Native American community by experiencing a pow wow.