As a girl growing up on the Navajo Nation in the 1950s and ’60s, LeNora Fulton remembers her parents making a major event out of voting.
Her father would polish his boots. Her mother would put on jewelry. They would drive 50 miles to the polling place in Fort Defiance and make a day of it.
“It was a social event as well,” said Fulton, 59. “It was something that was very special.”
Those were the tribal elections, held at the chapter houses of each community.
Fulton doesn’t think her mother and father ever registered to vote on county, state or federal matters. Fulton, who now is in charge of elections in Apache County, didn’t register herself until she was 30.
Although voting was part of the Navajo culture, the significance of it didn’t extend to any elections not on the reservation. Fulton can see, looking back, how this wasn’t by chance.
Native Americans were barred from voting by court order until 1948. And once they were allowed, literacy tests and an English ballot kept participation rates low.
It wasn’t until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation championed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. aimed at ending discriminatory practices in the South that kept African-Americans from voting, that Navajos also started registering in significant numbers. Following that act, Apache County saw its first Native American county official elected and now reliably has representation in the Arizona Legislature and in city and county offices.
As Apache County recorder, Fulton’s job is to ensure the county follows court decrees aimed at encouraging Navajo registration. The county is under Justice Department orders to provide outreach offices on the reservation and translations of the ballot into the Navajo language. Both are necessary to fulfill provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
“Even if it wasn’t required, we realize there are people who need the translation,” said Fulton, the first Native American to be elected as a county recorder in Arizona. “We feel it is an obligation for us to continue to provide it so people have adequate knowledge of what they are voting for.”
The Voting Rights Act had its roots in Selma, Ala. King led marches and protests against political leaders there who worked to keep blacks off the voting rolls.
“Voting is the foundation stone for political action,” King wrote in an article for the New York Times in March 1965. “With it the Negro can eventually vote out of office public officials who bar the doorway to decent housing, public safety, jobs and decent integrated education.”
The four-page essay did not mention the plight of Navajos. But while the law was aimed at the South, the actual language applied to any area with low voter registration.
That included Apache County, which includes part of the Navajo Nation. Under the law, literacy tests would be banned and the federal government could take over voter registration in affected areas.
In an editorial that ran the day the act was signed, The Arizona Republic called it “odd” that Apache County would come under a law aimed directly at ending discrimination in Southern states. It said low registration numbers here were simply because Navajos chose not to vote.
“Not even the most wild-eyed civil righter has ever claimed that the Indians in Arizona are prevented from registering and voting,” the editorial said. “Whether even the persuasive talents of federal registrars can force the Navajos to exercise their franchise remains to be seen.”
King attended the ceremony where President Lyndon Johnson signed the act. Also attending was U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden of Arizona, the president pro tempore of the Senate.
Nellie Shirley, 81, from the tribal community of Lupton, said a man named Max Ortega took it upon himself to educate Navajos in the area about the importance of voting. He persuaded her to register to vote in state and federal elections.
“We were not used to it,” Shirley said. “Mr. Ortega told us how to vote and who to vote for.”
Shirley said her husband, Tom, lost a close election for the tribal council in 1972. She noticed that county elections were coming up and persuaded him to run for supervisor.
Shirley soundly defeated his white opponent for the district supervisor seat in the November 1972 election. But county officials refused to let him take his seat. They argued Navajos were not U.S. citizens and should not hold office.
The court battle dragged on for months. The seat was vacant following the January inauguration ceremony.
The Shirleys felt the support of Navajos on the reservation, which also spans parts of New Mexico and Utah. But Tom Shirley had to travel to Holbrook and St. Johns for court matters. In those places, his wife said, he felt alone. When he returned home, he felt despondent.
“He kept to himself a lot,” Nellie Shirley said.
The Arizona Supreme Court sided with Shirley in September 1973 and he was able to take his elected position nine months after his term was supposed to begin.
While in office, Shirley fought a move by the county to reapportion the county’s districts, concentrating Navajos in one disproportionately large district and creating two other smaller districts off the reservation. A federal court, citing the Voting Rights Act, ordered the lines redrawn.
Shirley did not seek re-election in 1976. But two Navajos took seats on the three-member county board.
Nellie Shirley said her husband is a trailblazer. “There’s more of our people that got elected to the state and county offices,” she said. “We opened that area where people could run for office.”
A 1975 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said federal observers monitoring the 1974 election in Apache County noted a lack of polling places. In Chinle, the report said, voters waited 21/2 hours to cast ballots and some waited in line until 12:30 a.m. “Many did not have the stamina for the long wait,” the report said. “Others had to return to work.”
The report suggested the Voting Rights Act be amended to require translation of ballots. Congress added such an amendment that year.
In 1989, the U.S. attorney general filed a complaint that said Apache County, along with Navajo County, were not adequately providing Navajos with ballot information in their language. The county agreed to hire workers to reach out to Navajo voters and translate ballots.
Harold Noble, 77, of Steamboat, was working in the roads department of Apache County in 1992 when he was pressed into service because he could speak Navajo.
Noble said when Navajos did vote, they often didn’t know what they were voting for. Propositions in particular were a big problem.
“People thought that if you don’t know, just say no,” he said. “Throw a quarter in the air and see if it faces tails. That was the way people voted.”
Noble helped create a glossary of commonly used ballot terms so translations could be consistent from election to election.
Noble would also visit tribal chapter houses and try to inform people about the electoral process. He would read ballots in Navajo over the radio. Such outreach was mandated by the Voting Rights Act and paid for by the county, he said.
Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said she still sees evidence of politicians trying to curtail Native American participation.
Some redistricting efforts continue to try to dilute the Native American vote, she said. And, as recently as 2003, Arizona’s speaker of the House asked the state attorney general whether Navajos could serve on a state commission.
“It’s not history,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “There’s still a mentality that Indians need to stay on the reservation. It’s just a very odd, backward way of thinking.”