NAVAJO NATION RIDE TO THE POLLS
Getting to the polls can be hard in Navajo Nation. This woman is leading voters on horseback.
NAVAJO NATION RIDE TO THE POLLS
Allie Young, 30, leading a group of Navajo voters on horseback to an Arizona polling station as part of her “Ride to the Polls” initiative to encourage Native youth to vote. (Talia Mayden for HUMAN)
Allie Young saddled up, slid her feet into stirrups and started on a two-hour trail through her homeland of Navajo Nation, with a group of eager early voters in tow. They were heading to the polls on horseback.
There are only a few available polling stations for Navajo voters, many of whom have limited access to transportation. Frustrated by the barriers that discourage voting among Indigenous people, Young, 30, hatched a plan.
She started “Ride to the Polls” in early October, hoping to empower Native American youth to vote in the 2020 election while connecting with their cultural heritage. She leads groups on horseback along a 10-mile route from Church Rock in Navajo County to the polling stations in Kayenta, Ariz.
The Navajo Nation spans 27,000 square miles, and occupies portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Horseback riding is common in the community.
Young led a group of 15 Navajo voters on horseback on Oct. 20, most of whom range in age from 18 to 30. When they arrived at the polling station, they were met by a crowd of Native American people who were there to cast their ballots, too, after hearing about Ride to the Polls through social media and word of mouth.
Before saddling up, Young’s mother carefully tied a traditional Diné sash around her waist and outfitted her in customary beaded jewelry.
NAVAJO NATION RIDE TO THE POLLS
“I am doing this to honor our ancestors who fought for our right to vote, so I wanted to wear traditional clothes,” Young said.
Allie Young started a nonprofit in March called Protect the Sacred, with the goal of supporting Native communities that are disproportionately affected during the pandemic. (Talia Mayden for HUMAN)
Native American communities historically have faced barriers and inconveniences in the voting process that discourage them from voting. They were not given voting rights in every U.S. state until 1962, and have had problems since, including in the 2018 midterm elections, when many tribal ID cards were deemed invalid.
Today, poor access to voter registration offices and polling stations, limited transportation and excessive mail delays, among other logistical hurdles, makes voting in the U.S. election burdensome for many in tribal communities. Complicating matters, some in the community live miles from their closest neighbor and do not have a mailbox or street address.
But Native Americans potentially have the political force to shift the outcome of the election, particularly in Arizona. There are 67,000 eligible Navajo voters in the swing state, and their vote could prove pivotal in the polls.
Voters who attended the first Ride to the Polls event range in age from 18 to 30, and one woman, Lucinda Young, brought her son along to watch as she cast her ballot. (Talia Mayden for HUMAN)
OJ Semans, co-executive director of Four Directions, a nonpartisan organization centered on Native American voting rights, echoed the challenges Indigenous people face when they wish to vote.
“In terms of how difficult it is to access voting places, on a scale of one to ten, I would say it’s a nine,” Semans said. “Our numbers would skyrocket if we had the equal opportunity to vote.”
SOME SERIOUS ISSUE INVOLVING THEM
“The younger generation is stepping up,” he said, commending Young’s activism in the Navajo community. “They are no longer going to stand idly by.”
Young said Ride to the Polls was originally her father’s idea.
“He had a vision of us riding our horses to protect our people,” Young said. She quickly realized it was the perfect way to get the Navajo community excited about voting.
Her father, Frank, 58, wasn’t initially feeling encouraged to vote in the election, but the prospect of riding on horseback to the polls energized him.
“It’s given me strength, and I hope it gives us strength as a nation,” said Frank Young, who was born on the reservation and has always lived there.
Frank Young, 58, inspired his daughter to create Ride to the Polls. He was feeling discouraged about the election and had the idea to connect with his Native culture while heading to the polls. (Talia Mayden for HUMAN)
He said he was humbled to lead the trail ride alongside his daughter.
BACK IS THE SENSE OF COMMUNITY
“It brought back a sense of community,” he said. “I saw people driving after us and following us to the polls. They were excited and proud.”
Although Allie Young leads relatively small groups to voting stations, the Ride to the Polls concept has left a mark on Native Americans across the country, she said, adding that she has received countless messages from other members of tribal communities who were inspired by her.
“They tell me that after seeing the video, they went out and voted,” Young said. “It makes me feel proud that people are inspired by our culture and what we continuously fight for.”
When riders arrived at the polling station in Kayenta, Ariz., a crowd of other voters met them there to cheer them on and cast their ballots, too. (Talia Mayden for HUMAN)
She said traveling by horseback is a way to pay tribute to her ancestors, adding that horses are a spiritual and sacred animal in Diné (Navajo) culture.
“It’s also a reminder of what we’re fighting for: to protect not only our culture but our sacred land and Mother Earth,” she said.
Young, an activist for Indigenous Americans, works through her nonprofit Protect the Sacred to help register voters in Indian country and also encourage Indigenous community members to complete the 2020 Census.
She founded Protect the Sacred in March, with the initial goal of supporting Native communities that are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Young also works at Harness, an L.A.-based nonprofit group that highlights historically marginalized communities.
“We started by focusing on covid relief, but we’ve now shifted to the most important election of our lifetime,” Young said. “We can’t sit this one out.”
A post shared by Protect The Sacred (@protectthesacrednow) on Nov 1, 2020 at 8:58am PST
ONLY A FEW NATIVE AMERICANS ACTUALLY VOTE
According to a recent report by the Native American Rights Fund, only 66 percent of the Native American population is registered to vote across the country, leaving more than a million eligible voters unregistered.
Young said this doesn’t surprise her.
“A lot of young Native people aren’t motivated to vote,” Young said. “They question why we should participate in a colonial system that has never worked for us.”
She said they are also “feeling frustrated with the divisiveness across the country.”
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With voting challenges exacerbated by the pandemic — and the general lack of motivation to vote expressed by Native youth — Young feared her peers would not care to cast their ballots in this critical election.
Talia Mayden ventured from New Mexico to photograph the ride. It was her first time in Navajo Nation, and she described the landscape as “unlike anything I had ever seen.”
“It feels pretty rare in this election cycle that we ever get a moment that makes you feel proud to be American, and I felt proud,” said Mayden, 26. “I felt so much awe, which is something I haven’t felt in a long time.”
VERY SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE FOR HER
For Young, “It was a very spiritual experience,” she said. “Looking out and seeing miles and miles of untouched earth reminded me of what I was fighting for.”
Young has planned a third trail ride for Election Day, and she expects the rider turnout to be the biggest yet.
Although Young takes relatively small groups on the trail rides, she said Ride to the Polls has inspired other tribal communities to vote in the election while embracing their Native culture. (Talia Mayden for HUMAN)
“The voting force is strong is Indian country because our voices are powerful,” she said. “They deserve to be heard.”