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Pueblo People Win the Right to Vote-1948

The New Mexico Constitution says that “Indians not taxed may not vote,” although they possess every other qualification. We are unable to escape the conclusion that under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; this constitutes discrimination on the ground of race. Any other citizen, regardless of race, in the State of New Mexico who has not paid one cent of tax of any kind or character, if he possesses the other qualifications, may vote. An Indian, and only an Indian, in order to meet the qualifications of a voter, must have paid a tax. How can you escape the conclusion that that makes a requirement with respect to an Indian as a qualification to exercise the elective franchise and does not make that requirement with respect to the member of any other race is beyond me? I just feel like the conclusion is inescapable.

The above statement comes from a three-judge panel in 1948 that granted American Indians the right to vote in New Mexico. One of the most important developments in American political history has been the gradual and often painfully slow extension of the right to vote. What makes this event more remarkable was that Pueblo people, as well as many other American Indians, volunteered to serve in World War I and World War II, only to come home and not have the right to participate in American democracy. Twenty-five thousand American Indians served in the armed forces during World War II and more than 550 of them were killed.

General sentiment among Indians during the 1940s was that if Indians voted, they would be giving up their status as tribal nations. There has always been some reluctance among American Indians to be members within the American system. Federal policy with regard to American Indians extends back to treaty relations in which both the United States and tribal nations negotiated on a nation-to-nation status. For American Indians historically it has been a constant struggle to maintain both their sovereign status and civil rights as American citizens. Not all political parties favored disenfranchisement of the 20,000 potential Indian voters in New Mexico. In 1947, the President’s Committee on Civil Rights condemned disenfranchisement of Indians in New Mexico and Arizona because Indians were citizens, subject to both federal and state taxes. The committee recommended that New Mexico and Arizona grant suffrage to their Indian citizens. This report put further pressure on states to grant American Indians the right to vote. During the 1940s a few states still prohibited Indians from voting due to the “not taxed” policy: Arizona, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington.

Miguel Trujillo Sr. of Isleta Pueblo is most remembered for making it possible for the tribes of New Mexico to vote in state and national elections. On June 14, 1948 Trujillo attempted to register to vote in Los Lunas, near Isleta Pueblo, and was refused by the recorder of Valencia Country, Eloy Garley, under the “Indians not taxed” provision of the New Mexico Constitution. Enacted in 1912, the denial of suffrage was based on Article VII, Section 1 of the Constitution of New Mexico. Trujillo sued the state of New Mexico for the right to vote. On August 3, 1948, a federal court in Santa Fe ruled that New Mexico had discriminated against its Indians by restricting the vote on the basis, especially since Indians had paid all state and federal taxes except private property taxes on the reservations. Trujillo’s ensuing actions helped pave the way for Indians to vote in New Mexico.

Since gaining the right to vote in 1948, Indian voting turnout in New Mexico has been sporadic. It is only within the last two decades, that voting turnout has significantly changed. Due to increasing political clout, Pueblo people have strategically organized and turned out to vote in record numbers. Pueblo Indians credit the efforts of Miguel Trujillo for gaining the right to vote, a fundamental right of American democracy.

Sources Used:

Brontisky, Gordon. “Isleta’s Unsung Hero,” New Mexico Magazine. August 1989.

McCool, Daniel. “Indian Voting” in American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Vine Deloria Jr., University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Miguel H. Trujillo, Plaintiff vs. Eloy Garley, Defendant, U.S. District of Court of New Mexico, No. 1353.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Nations Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Clear Light Publishers, 1992.

---. Pueblo Profiles: Cultural Identity through Centuries of Change. Clear Light Publisher, 1998.

Further Reading:

Deloria, Jr., Vine, ed. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Deloria, Jr. Vine and David E. Wilkins. Tribes, Treaties, & Constitutional Tribulations. University of Texas Press, 1999.

Iverson, Peter.“We Are Still Here” American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1998.

Wilkins, David E. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.