Dalene Redhorse has lived on the Navajo reservation in rural San Juan County her whole life, where tens of thousands of buildings and homes don’t have physical addresses.
“A lot of people use directions to their houses — like so many miles from a certain landmark,” she says. A typical address might be: Off U.S. Highway 191 between mile markers 1 and 2, blue house with tan roof.
People in rural Utah can register to vote with these types of directions. They can even draw a rudimentary map on registration forms, thanks to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. But in Navajo country, there are huge problems with living where the homes have no numbers, and the streets have no names.
“You try to register it as data into the computers,” Redhorse said, and “it’s complicated.” On the Navajo reservation, emergency services can’t find people’s houses when they call. And a lot of voting records are wrong.
The Deseret News has a new podcast on the history of women’s voting rights in Utah, called “Zion’s Suffragists.” It retells the story of women in Utah working for equality at the ballot — a story that continues to this day.
Getting people registered in the right voting district is a common problem in American Indian country. A lot of votes come in as absentee or mail-in ballots, and people aren’t sure if their votes are even counted.
“I’m not sure what happens when they vote in the wrong district,“ Redhorse said.
In fact, Redhorse is still unsure if her own vote has ever been correctly counted.
“I was pinned to reside near a sewer pond in Bluff, San Juan County — that would put me in the wrong district than where I actually live,” she said. “I don’t know what happened to my vote all those years.”
Coordinates that bring people out of the shadows
People on the Navajo reservation in Utah are trying to get ahead of this problem in time for the 2020 general election this fall. They may have found a solution with the help of Google.
“We’re giving all residents on the reservation — on the Utah side — physical addresses using plus codes,” Redhorse said.
The plus code is a shortened version of the satellite coordinates of every location on the planet. Google creates them, and they’ll work with any map app. This code can bring the police or emergency services, mail delivery, and other government services to people in remote areas.
In other words, it can help us see the people who were previously invisible, especially in modern life.
A developer at Google invented the plus code after learning that half the world’s population lives on unnamed roads.
Plus codes have been used to great effect in parts of India and Africa. With the code as an address, people can open bank accounts. They can register for services that people who live in a house with an address often take for granted.
Redhorse is a field organizer for a grassroots nonprofit that’s trying to register Navajos to vote through these plus codes, called the Rural Utah Project. Thousands of people on the reservation have been registered since the project began in 2018.
In the San Juan County government, Navajos votes are starting to make a difference. Since the 2018 election, a majority of the county commissioners are now Navajo.
“Navajos were underrepresented,” Redhorse said. “I decided to let Navajos know, we’re being walked on, we’re pushed aside.”
She is often driving unnamed roads on the reservation, delivering blue cards with their plus codes to houses, and helping people register to vote. The signs are donated by Google. A typical address on the reservation is now: 7CMR+2M, Bluff, UT.
On the shoulders of Utah women from the past
One of Utah’s greatest advocates for American Indian voting rights, a Lankton-Sioux woman named Zitkála-Šá, crisscrossed the country in the early 1900s to bring Native Americans together.
Zitkála-Šá was especially interested in protecting native peoples’ land rights, and changing the U.S. government’s overall attitude toward them.
She pioneered multiple creative ways to do it. A talented violinist, she created an opera with a musician at Brigham Young University called the “Sun Dance Opera,” to introduce white audiences to a sacred Native American tradition. She wrote stories for Harpers and The Atlantic Monthly, showcasing the beautiful, beating heart of Indian culture and life. And she gave powerful public speeches about the rights of native peoples.
“Zitkála-Šá was at the forefront of saying, ‘We are human. We play the violin like you. We sing like you. We have a way of spiritually connecting like you,’” said Farina King, a historian at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.
Zitkála-Šá worked to pass the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, aided by the tens of thousands of American Indians who fought during World War I without the benefits of U.S. citizenship. She was part of a generation of American Indian activists who worked their whole lives to try to change the whole country’s treatment of them.
Another Utah woman and leader of the Northwestern band of the Shoshone named Mae Timbimboo Parry led Utah toward integrating Native Americans into the larger Utah electorate in a different way: by helping the state confront its history of mistreatment of native peoples.
Timbimboo Parry grew up hearing her grandfather’s stories, especially his memories of the massacre at Bear River, when hundreds of Shoshone men, women and children were slaughtered by federal troops in 1863. In history books, and at the site in Cache Valley, it was referred to as “The Battle of Bear River.”
“She worked tirelessly to make sure that it was changed by the National Park Service” said her grandson, Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone.
Thanks to Timbimboo Parry’s work, the history books and the site refer to the “Bear River Massacre.”
Parry often retells his grandmother’s trailblazing work in helping Utah reckon with its history with native peoples.
Fragile progress with voting rights
Utah granted voting privileges to people living on reservations quite recently. In 1956, Utah became the last state in the U.S. to recognize the voting rights of people living on reservations.
These voting rights are new enough on the reservations in Utah that the barriers to voting can seem insurmountable.
“We’re part of the fabric of this country, but when it comes to civil rights, the laws make it difficult for Native Americans to take part in the process,” Parry said.
For example, it may be only a matter of time before state and county governments stop accepting voter registrations with directions instead of addresses.
North Dakota recently wrote a law requiring identification with a street address in order to vote, disenfranchising a chunk of the state’s sizable American Indian population. The law was challenged in the courts, and North Dakota is now under federal oversight to make sure that American Indians can vote.
“I have so many relatives with no address,” King said. “When you make a law that only people with an address can vote, you are disenfranchising people.”
Redhorse has put thousands of miles on her truck to fix this problem.
Her work puts her firmly in line with generations of Utah women who have gone house by house, block by block to expand the electorate — to make America a true democracy.