Democracy is Indigenous: The Power of the Vote with Laura Harris

[Opening strum of Theme Music]

[00:00:00] Laura Harris: The idea of Indigenous democracy is really a strong part of our national psyche. And we know that the Founding Fathers spent time studying the Iroquois Confederacy. 

A member of the Iroquois Confederacy went down to Philadelphia and addressed the Continental Congress. He used the metaphor that a bundle of arrows is stronger than one arrow. And what you guys ought to do is create a union and come together. 

In fact, our seal is the eagle, and in one talon, he’s holding 13 arrows in a bundle. So it’s more than just coincidence. 

Charlotte (VO): Hi folks, this is Encounter Culture, a podcast from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. I’m Charlotte Jusinski.

Stephanie (VO):  And I’m Stephanie Padilla.

Charlotte (VO): This is our sixth and final episode in our series about the life and legacy of Miguel Trujillo in collaboration with the New Mexico History Museum.

Stephanie (VO): If you haven’t already, we recommend you go listen to the whole season from start to finish.

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[00:01:00] Charlotte: To celebrate this season’s collaboration, we’d like to thank you for being part of our listening community at Encounter Culture.

Over the past three seasons of the show, we’ve toured New Mexico’s exceptional state museums and historic sites. But, of course, our favorite way to fully experience everything they have to offer is in person with the New Mexico Culture Pass. Right now, through August 31st, 2023, you can enter to win a package of four Culture Passes and a one year subscription to El Palacio magazine, all valued at $145, by visiting   

Whether you’re a local resident or you’re visiting us on your travels, Culture Pass is your ticket to each of our 15 museums and historic sites. You must be 18 years or older to apply, and there is no purchase necessary. This opportunity is made possible by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.

Once again, visit and enter to win four culture passes and a one year subscription to El Palacio magazine. Giveaway ends August 31st, 2023.

[Giveaway announcement ends. Theme music fades. Gentle Hopi flute music fades in.]

[00:02:07] Charlotte (VO): In this episode, we talk to Laura Harris. She’s the daughter of LaDonna Harris, the famed Comanche activist and politician, and Fred Harris, the similarly famous senator from Oklahoma who often fought for Native rights.

Stephanie (VO): Laura comes from a long line of political knowledge, experience, and activism. She herself has extensive experience on national, state, and local campaigns and in political fundraising. She’s currently the Executive Director of Americans for Indian Opportunity. 

[00:02:38] Laura: Haa marúaweeka. I’m Laura Harris. I’m a citizen of the Comanche Nation and Executive Director of Americans for Indian Opportunity. 

We’re a 50 year old organization that was founded by my mother, LaDonna Harris, and a handful of national Native American activists who were working in the late 1960s to change federal policy towards tribal governments and in Native American communities. And their first really big win was the return of Taos Blue Lake to the people of Taos here in New Mexico. And that was the first time that the federal government ever gave land back to an Indian tribe. 

And with that success, a couple of other sea changes in federal policy that this group was able to activate, they created Americans for Indian Opportunity and we’ve worked on many, many issues over the years from education, housing, urban Native issues, tribal governance, and leadership development. For the past 25 years, we have the only national Native American leadership program that’s based on Indigenous values and leadership from an Indigenous worldview.

[00:03:47] Stephanie: So when we talk about leading with Indigenous values, can you explain what exactly that means? What are those values? 

Laura: Sure, Stephanie. Our organization in the 1980s began to look at the dysfunction of some tribal governments. Part of what they found out were these were foreign forms of government that were imposed on us by the United States government, that was part of it.

But the other part was how do you infuse your governing documents with your values? We weren’t afforded the opportunity to have a convention, constitutional convention, where we could all come together, articulate our values, and then put those into a governing document. 

So the first thing we thought was, well, we should define what those values are, and we came up with four that we find are very broad, and then we base our leadership program on that. The administration of our office and our programming really have a foundation in what we call the Four R’s, or Hayarokweetu. 

In Comanche, Hayarokweetu is the number four, but it has a dual meaning. It also means, “Everything’s just right. It’s just right that way.” 

So Hayarokweetu, the Four R’s are relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution. And these are not in the sense over romanticized, you know, like all Native Americans are great environmentalists or they have wonderful hand-eye coordination and can shoot a bow and arrow.

It’s not that romantic idea. These are really concrete and through our ambassadors program, our leadership program, we encourage these leaders to implement their traditional values in a modern context, because our values are relevant. 

They say that if, if we’re going to really address climate change in the United States, we’re going to have to have a culture change and we could look at an Indigenous worldview for that culture change. Relationship means that we’re related to everybody, of course, but we’re also related to things that people might call inanimate objects, like rocks and mountains, the moon, the earth, and we have a responsibility to those relationships. If we call the earth our mother, then we have a responsibility to care for her like our mother. 

These responsibilities are reciprocal in nature, as is the universe. Everything is cyclical and goes around. 

And the idea of redistribution, although I personally believe in the redistribution of wealth, we mean more redistribution of resources, of information. In our traditions, this would be our generosity. We all had very intricate ways of redistributing wealth. Here in New Mexico, the Pueblos call it a throw. In the Plains Indians, we call it a giveaway. In the Northwest, they call it a potlatch. 

But these Four R’s really encompass a lot, and as I said, not in a romantic way, but these are relevant today. 

Our values are relevant today, our worldview is very relevant today, and we have to articulate them and really define them and figure out what they mean for us. And every tribe may have different values and a different worldview.  

We found these Four R’s to resonate across the world with the Ainu in Japan, the Quechua in Bolivia, folks in the Amazon. In New Zealand, the Maori started a sister organization with Americans for Indian Opportunity, the Advancement of Maori Opportunity, and they adapted our leadership program model to Maori ways. And they’ve graduated about 150 folks from Maori that are in New Zealand that are now really running the country in many different ways. 

[Flute music swells]

[00:07:31] Stephanie (VO): Going back to Taos Blue Lake, I asked Laura what it took to have that win and what about it she thought was different from previous attempts to get land back from the federal government.

[00:07:42] Laura: Well, the Taos people had been fighting at the time that my parents met the Taos leadership. They’d already been fighting for 60 years, at least, to get the land back. It was taken away illegally after the Mexican-American War. 

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had really safeguarded a lot of land for Native Americans and for other land grant holders from the Spanish Crown and the Mexican government, but the United States didn’t uphold a lot of the land grants Taos was one of those.

It was a tract of land, about 43 acres, which held a lake that they consider sacred as part of their origin story. And it was really a matter of religious freedom. And the Taos leadership came to Washington and they met with my father. 

My father was a United States Senator at the time from the state of Oklahoma. And they’d heard he had a Native American wife, and thought that he might be helpful to them. And so, first thing my dad did was called my mother over to his Senate office, and they began to strategize on how they could do it. In fact, they decided right then and there that if they didn’t get anything else done in Washington, they were going to help get this land back.

So my mother knew a young White House fellow, Bobbie Kilberg, in the Nixon White House. And she reached out to her, and was able to help make the issue a bipartisan issue. Nixon was a great champion for the return of Blue Lake, and they proceeded, my mother in particular, to build a group of lobbyists to commandeer a bunch of lobbyists in Washington to help her lobby.

[00:09:24] And my father held up all the bills coming out of the committee on the interior until the senator from New Mexico gave up his opposition. In fact, on the floor of the United States Senate, Clinton P. Anderson, New Mexico Senator at the time, was against this land return. And his argument was that if they gave land back to one Indian tribe, all of them were going to want land back.

[00:09:51] Charlotte: Well, okay. Well, do that. That’s great. 

Laura: He was right on that. 

Charlotte: Yeah, exactly. Go ahead. 


[00:09:56] Laura: But so, Clinton P. Anderson said, “Senator, I don’t come to Oklahoma and mess with your Indians. You oughtn’t come to New Mexico and mess with my Indians.”

And my father famously said, “Senator, they’re not your Indians.” 

So that was a huge sea change in federal policy.

[00:10:21] Stephanie: You mentioned that you were very concerned about some of the voter suppression that we’ve been hearing about recently. I mean, we’re talking about the right to vote, which was won in New Mexico in the 1940s. So can you talk a little bit about how we’re still struggling with that today?

[00:10:38] Laura:  Sure. You know, it took about 200 years for Native American suffrage.

Native Americans have been fighting for the right to vote and have equal rights and equal citizenship within the United States since the beginning of the United States. So the United States didn’t recognize Native Americans as citizens. 

They said that Native Americans or Indians are not taxed and therefore subject to the United States, but not full citizens. And it took a great deal of effort to change that around. And that is something that was not guaranteed for Native Americans to be able to vote freely and easily and have access to polling sites. 

As we’re seeing in Arizona, there’s armed vigilantes guarding polling sites. They say they’re guarding them to take care of them, to safeguard them. But that’s an old Jim Crow tactic to suppress the vote, intimidate voters. It’s really… you know, could you imagine walking up to a ballot box and putting in your ballot as somebody next to you is holding a gun? 

And in Florida, they arrested several African American men for voter fraud. They made it very public. They handcuffed them for something that’s not a violent crime and made a big to-do of it. Basically, another Jim Crow tactic to say, you come and vote and you might likely be arrested. 

[00:12:07] Stephanie: So, you know, these people are claiming to be protecting the polls, but it’s really just intimidating tactics. If they were truly protecting the polls, how do you think that would be done the proper way?

[00:12:21] Laura: Well, you’d have volunteers out there welcoming people. If there were lines, you’d be able to give them water and snacks and umbrellas in case it was raining. Everybody ought to feel welcome at polling sites. But a lot of people… You know, voting is not a tradition in their family, and they’re a little intimidated just by going to the polling site, much less having an armed guard there.

It seems rather silly. In 200 years, we’ve learned how to hold safe and fair elections. We know what works. We have laws to protect us. And, um, all of this other nonsense is really not needed.

[00:12:58] Charlotte: When it comes to the biggest challenge, when it comes to currently now Native Americans voting, do you think that it is these kind of “shock and awe” voter suppression tactics like the ones we’re seeing in Arizona and Florida? Or is it something more mundane, like simply getting to the polls or having polling places? 

[00:13:13] Laura: Well, we’re very fortunate here in New Mexico. The tribal governments of New Mexico have a very strong relationship with the state, with the governor, and in particular with the secretary of state. She makes sure that there are early voting polling sites available to rural tribal members to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to vote.

And she works on a tribe to tribe basis to ensure that that happens. But then it comes down to county clerks, and often county clerks aren’t as – not sure how to say it – uh, welcoming of everybody to come and vote, and they often put up barriers, and sometimes these barriers are done intentionally, and sometimes these barriers are unintentional, just kind of a lack of knowledge.

But I think we do, we do a real good job here in New Mexico. We can do better, particularly in rural areas. And make sure that volunteers and poll workers will accept a Native American identification card, just like a driver’s license, those things are set in place and that poll workers are familiar with the law and how they can be more helpful to folks out on the reservation to vote. 

But, you know, 75% of all Native Americans nationwide live in cities and here in Albuquerque, we’re doing some nonpartisan get out the vote. We’re about 8.5% of the Albuquerque population, and we’re 10% of the Albuquerque public school system, so we have a real stake in voting both urban areas and in rural tribal communities because we’re a part of the federal system of governments, just like states are tribes or governments. And it really takes good relations and strong tribal sovereignty to maintain that and to maintain our right to vote. 

For instance, in South Dakota, they’re throwing up all kinds of barriers, South and North Dakota, to discourage Native Americans from voting.

Charlotte: What does that look like? 

Laura: Well, specifically in South Dakota, they are requiring voters to have a ID that matches the address for their voter registration, a street address. On many rural areas, not just on reservations, but other rural areas, some streets aren’t named. And if you are my age, in your 60s, where you first registered in the state is not going to match the address on your current driver’s license.

One of the things we’re really encouraging people to do in Albuquerque and get out the vote and in cities across the country is to check your registration. Check and make sure you’re registered where you’re supposed to be registered and that they have all of your information correct that matches your identification.

So, addresses is one of the key ways that they’re trying to suppress the Native vote in South Dakota. 

[00:16:10] Stephanie: So how do you think that we, as a New Mexican community, tribal communities, how can we make a difference? How can we get involved in getting out the Native vote? 

[00:16:23] Laura: Well, our organization is nonpartisan, but as a volunteer, I think it’s five or six Saturdays since the summer I volunteered for an Indigenous woman who’s running for the state house in New Mexico.

That’s the best way to get involved. Get involved in a campaign. They’re a lot of fun. I’ve been in campaigns since in utero, my first campaign. 

It’s a lot of fun. You can get involved in the political parties and candidates really love to have youth involved. We know that kids are very interested in politics, are interested in world affairs.

We ought to encourage everybody and we ought to teach civics again so that folks going to school understand how these systems work. There’s a lot of room to be a leader in either party and consider running yourself. 

[00:17:15] Charlotte: What does getting involved in a campaign necessarily look like? Cause I think that people get a little spooked. They’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to call people at 7:00 on a Tuesday. It’s right in the middle of their dinner.” You know, like at least that’s what I, clearly that’s what I think. It freaks me out. What might it look like to be involved in a campaign? 

[00:17:31] Laura: Well, there is phone banking and most people do try to get away from making calls, but they’re very important.

The first thing that a candidate wants to do is identify who’s going to vote for them, and then you have to make sure they vote. So you give them a few calls to make sure they get to the polls. 

What I’ve been doing is knocking on doors. So we have a list of registered voters in the district, and we go and knock on those doors. Mostly we’re dropping off a card about the candidate, but if somebody comes to the door, you kind of get a little nervous, but you just say, “I’m here campaigning for my friend, and I hope you’ll vote for her.” It’s as simple as that. 

You can get in deeper conversations about issues. Some folks like to talk about it and some are just, “Thanks very much for the information,” and close the door. 

And some you know, don’t even want you to knock at their door. So we just hang a card on their door. 

You get to meet a lot of other people, like-minded people. It’s very social. We get together early and have donuts and coffee and visit and talk politics before we head out to knock on the doors. 

And the other thing is to go to your precinct. Precinct meetings are a great place if you’re interested in party leadership. You start at the precinct level and if you show up, chances are you’ll be elected chair of that precinct because there’ll be so few people there. And if you’re interested, people are happy to elect you and that gets you in the door for leadership in political parties. 

[00:19:05] Charlotte: Nice. And to be clear, I actually do talk to poll workers. I do talk on the phone and answer the door. So I made myself sound awfully terrible a second ago, but I just wanted to give myself a shout out.


[00:19:14] Stephanie: Well, no, I was actually going to jump in and say, I’m pretty introverted when it comes to one on one. So usually I’m that person that will just say, “Okay, thank you, bye.”

But it’s always helpful to at least still have the information so I can review it, you know, by myself. So it’s still very helpful.

[00:19:32] Laura: And what we found really effective over the years, like I said, I’ve been involved in a lot of campaigns, is that when Native Americans reach out to other Native Americans, you get a much warmer welcome and they’re more willing to listen to you. Say, “I’m a Native American and I’m working for this person because they believe in the same values that I do.” That reassures the other person on the line that that is somebody that they could support. 

So we’re doing a little bit of get out the vote, nonpartisan, like I said, here in Albuquerque, but it’s, uh, it’s hard work.

[00:20:07] Stephanie: Yeah, that’s something that I think is very valuable in our communities is, I learned this at NACA, actually, you know, Native people trust Native people. And so it’s very important for even our youth to get out there. 

[00:20:19] Charlotte (VO): Shout out to NACA, the Native American Community Academy, which we heard about in the previous episode with Kara Bobroff.

Charlotte: So beyond getting involved in other people’s campaigns, how can young or emerging leadership in Native communities prepare themselves to have their own campaigns and to run themselves? 

[00:20:38] Laura: Well, Charlotte, I think the first thing you do is start at your precinct. If you want to be involved in state or local politics, even national, it all starts at the precinct level, but it also starts at the tribe.

There’s many opportunities to take up youth leadership roles within the tribe or in your school. In Albuquerque, you can join the Indian Club, you could get elected president of the Indian Club. Those are good ways to start and also to know as many people as you can. The first thing a candidate does is turns around to their family and friends, and if they have a lot of friends, then they have a lot of volunteers and a lot of votes already.

I think a lot of the opposition and voter suppression and this false idea that there’s voter fraud taking place is a lack of understanding how it works. Be a poll worker. That’s a great way to see how it works and how many safeguards there are to make sure that it’s an accurate and honest accounting.

Knowing the system, I think, is a big piece of how it all works and how you fit into it. But if you’re a young person wanting to run for office, get some public speaking experience. Join a club, run for office in those clubs, and also hook up with a candidate and be a part of their campaign.

[Vocal music swells]

[00:22:08] Stephanie: So I want to go into a slightly different direction, and I’m just curious about AIO’s work with Indigenous communities internationally. I know that a part of AIO is communicating with those communities, and I’m wondering if you’ve seen a difference in the way that they advocate for their people or make changes for their communities compared to here in America.

[00:22:32] Laura: We had the great honor to meet with Evo Morales, who was president of Bolivia at the time, the first Indigenous person to be president of that country. 

The way he did it, it’s fascinating to learn how he got Indigenous peoples to vote and participate in civic activities. Nobody had ever wanted the Indians to vote in Bolivia until he was running for office. 

And his team and his party would go out to Indigenous communities and they would practice voting, practice filling out the ballot. Then they would put it in the box and then the volunteers would go through and find ballots that might have been spoiled, that wouldn’t have counted. And then they go back and do it over and over again until all the ballots are perfect. 

[00:23:20] Stephanie: Something that you mentioned reminded me of what Karen Waconda was telling me about Miguel Trujillo. You probably don’t know this, but he was her grandfather, and he would have her sit down with him in front of the news and go over what candidates were fighting for.

Stephanie (VO): Here’s Karen Waconda, Miguel Trujillo’s granddaughter. 

[00:23:42] Karen Waconda: So he walked me through, he drew out like an example of a ballot. And I spent a lot of time with them. And so in their kitchen was a TV in a sitting area and we would watch the news and we would watch presidential elections and also the state elections.

And he would ask me to reiterate what they were saying, like, “Okay, what did you hear from, you know, this presidential speech?” And he would then review it with me, say, “Okay, what did you learn from this? What rights are they fighting for?”

[Music transition back to the interview.]

[00:24:26] Laura: You know, when the United States first formed as a government, Native Americans weren’t considered citizens and did not have the right to vote. And then in 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizens Act, which did allow Native Americans to vote. And when I say that Congress passed this bill, they passed the bill because of advocacy from Native Americans ourself.

I’m pretty sure in 1924, we had a Native American Vice President, Charles Curtis in the Hoover administration, so I’m sure they were able to advocate to him and got this legislation passed. But in several states, New Mexico included, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, North Carolina, they denied the right. They still would not allow Native Americans to vote, and probably in other states as well.

But in 1934, we had the Indian Reorganization Act through President Roosevelt’s New Deal. And there again, they strengthened that right for Native Americans to vote and strengthened our inherent right to be self-governing. 

And then in 1948, the National Congress of American Indians was really pushing for voting rights and Miguel Trujillo, who was a citizen of the Isleta Pueblo, he attempted to vote and was denied the right to vote. So the National Congress of American Indians put a little money behind Miguel Trujillo and helped with the lawsuit and he won, securing the right for Native Americans to vote in New Mexico. Not nationally, but here in New Mexico.

And then in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act, and that was really the first time we really started voting. Up until then, we were, you know, self-governing. A lot of tribes were still governing in a traditional way until the New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act, and then Lyndon Johnson really shone a light on the fact that Natives were still being denied the right to vote.

So it wasn’t until the mid ‘60s that most Natives have been voting. 

[00:26:29] Stephanie: Thank you, Laura. I think it’s very important to understand that, like, this conversation began, we’re still struggling even today. People have the right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s just 100% a right to vote. I think that the fight still lives on and we still have so much work to do.

[Flute music swells]

[00:26:29] Stephanie: Going back to, you know, just how recently Native people started voting, what have you observed and what can we learn from the disconnect between specifically rural Native communities and voting in American society?

[00:27:11] Laura: Well, I think for a long time, people felt that it didn’t affect them. For instance, you would see more Native Americans voting for national offices during presidential election years. 

Here in New Mexico, in particular, they didn’t really get too involved in state politics up until the ‘60s and ‘70s, when they realized that, you know, they’re forced to work with the state in many ways. And it works out better if the state understands that they’re government and they enter into intergovernmental relationship. 

And like I said, New Mexico’s very forward in that we’re the only state that has an Indian Affairs department, the only state. And we do have one of the higher percentage of populations. And so it is important that we all participate and learn how the political process works because it does affect us so much. 

We always say, you know, we retain our inherent right to be self-governing. And Congress, the United States Congress, recognizes that. And so does the rest of the federal government. But we say, “What Congress giveth, Congress can taketh away.” And they have. They’ve restricted our rights here and there, and then they open them back up, and then they get restricted again. So it’s in our own best interest to run for office and, and to vote for candidates that support tribes and urban Natives.

[00:28:32] Stephanie: There is some disconnect still, understandably, because of our history, but I agree that really the only way to make a difference as of now is to get involved.

[00:28:41] Laura: I was just going to say, Native Americans are part of a national trend of apathy, the idea that their vote doesn’t count and that the average person really can’t make a difference.

And that couldn’t be more far from the truth. The way our system in the United States is set up is that everybody has the opportunity to make a difference and it starts really with civic participation and voting.

Well Stephanie, there’s a great example of how an Indian tribe or a Native community can exercise their influence. The Oglala Lakota in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation have been oppressed since the army first got out to South Dakota. They’ve been economically deprived, disadvantaged. 

It started really when a county sheriff, Shannon County Sheriff, would sit outside of the reservation and profile Native Americans. And they’d figure out ways to stop them in hopes that that person had a warrant and then they could arrest them. And it was, it was literally harassment. 

So what the tribe decided to do was to get together and elect their own sheriff. They are the majority vote in Shannon County at that time. And they were successful in electing an Oglala sheriff.

They then took over their county commission. They sent an Oglala to the state House and then to the state Senate. Now that county, they’ve renamed the county from Shannon County to Oglala County, and they’ve done that by participating in South Dakota politics and being a part of the process and voting.

There’s tribes in Sandoval County, for instance, they could be the majority vote in a lot of areas. And so, I think sometimes we don’t see the power that our vote can have. We can have a great deal of influence and begin to work with our neighbors to chart a thriving future for the tribes and our neighbors.

[00:30:56] Charlotte: Kind of related to that topic, something that some of the other guests in this series have brought up is this question of, and I approach this question, you know, as a white person looking from the outside. I just want to make sure I acknowledge that very openly. There is this question, am I Native or am I American?

And are those things mutually exclusive? And if you are Native, does that mean you should participate in the American form of government? You know, like this whole idea of can we dismantle this government from the inside?

[00:31:27] Laura: That’s a good question, Charlotte. There are some people who feel that the best way to oppose the policies of the United States is to oppose the United States.

I’m not one of those people. I was brought up in a political family. And I believe, you know, that Native Americans have triple citizenship. 

We learn in political science that Americans have dual citizenship. We’re a citizen of our state and a citizen of the federal government. Well, Native Americans are citizens of their tribal government – for me, that’s Comanche Nation – and the State of New Mexico and the United States. 

I vote absentee ballot in the Comanche elections and our leaders come out to Albuquerque because there’s enough of us because of the Relocation Act, the federal policy of relocating Natives into urban areas. They come out and campaign us and look after us a little bit here, even though we’re not where we’re headquartered in Oklahoma.

Many of us consider New Mexico Comanche Territory as well. (laughs) It’s always a joke with the Pueblo folks here, but…

My family’s been successful at making change by working on the inside. My mother and her colleagues created a great deal of change, but they also credit, you know, groups like the American Indian Movement that raised visibility to some of the problems for Native Americans. And they were militant and held protests sometimes that ended in violence, but my mother was just as radical as they were. She just made change in a different way than they were advocating for. 

And then our tagline to get out the vote in urban areas through the National Urban Indian Family Coalition is: Democracy is Indigenous.

So it’s really important for Native people to recognize that the confederacies that were prolific throughout the south and eastern parts of the United States, Pocahontas’s father was the head of a great confederacy. And then we know more about the Iroquois Confederacy. 

The idea of Indigenous democracy is really a strong part of our national psyche. Nothing like that existed in Europe at the time. They’re still, you know, lords and peasants, and if you own land, you own the people on the land kind of thing. So this was new to them. 

And we know that the Founding Fathers spent time studying the Iroquois Confederacy. Benjamin Franklin, many of those folks who participated in the Continental Congress were Indian agents for their colony. So they knew quite a bit about the way tribes governed themselves. 

And then a member of the Iroquois Confederacy went down to Philadelphia and addressed the Continental Congress. And, in fact, he used the metaphor that a bundle of arrows is stronger than one arrow. And what you guys ought to do is create a union and come together.

In fact, some language, like the word caucus, we all know what caucus is. And it’s part of our political system in the United States in some states. That word caucus is an Iroquoian word. It means to come together and make decisions, or to hear each other out. In fact, our seal is the eagle, and in one talon, he’s holding thirteen arrows in a bundle.

So, it’s more than just coincidence. 

We also know that the suffragettes studied the role of women in the Iroquois Confederacy. Women really played the role of judiciary, and there was three branches of government. It’s pretty amazing. So we don’t have to say that democracy is alien to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

We’ve probably had even more democratic ways of governing ourselves, including consensus-based decision making. 

[00:35:20] Stephanie: I think it’s awesome that even though you’re so far from home, you’re still politically involved. I think that’s an issue that we… Well, I can’t speak for all tribes, but I think our tribal communities can be a little bit exclusive when people either move to another state or even another city outside of the rez, but we should not forget that no matter where our people are, their voices still matter very much.

[00:35:43] Laura: And it’s also important to remember that a lot of us ended up in the cities because of federal policy to move us to the cities, and just drop us, basically, without any services, without any family, without jobs, without housing. And that’s why you find that there’s an Urban Indian Center in every major city in the United States.

[00:36:05] And the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, I’m on the board of directors of that, just a little disclaimer, they’ve done a lot of work looking at the dynamics and they’ve come to the conclusion through a lot of community input that the folks back home on the reservation feel abandoned and the folks in the city feel abandoned.

And so we’re going to have to heal that trauma caused by federal policy in order to work together and for tribes to be more cognizant of the needs of their tribal citizens who just happen to reside in the city.

[Transition music]

[00:36:45] Stephanie (VO): Once we wrapped all of our interviews for this podcast season, Charlotte and I sat down in the studio for one more conversation to put everything we’d been learning into perspective. 

[00:36:57] Charlotte: Why is it important for Indigenous people in particular to be politically aware? 

[00:37:02] Stephanie: I mean, I think the bigger question would be, how could it not be important for Indigenous people to be politically aware?

This is our home, you know. Originally, this was where we are from. We are Native American people. We’re here now, today. Either we need to move forward in making these changes to our government or we need to participate in a way that will help us. 

We’ve been burned a lot by the United States government. And so obviously there’s a lot of resentment there. But at the same time, we also need to realize that we do have a say in what happens now. 

[00:37:46] Charlotte: And another thing that has come up a number of times in a couple of our interviews is you personally seem to have a lot of passion for creating space for young people to get involved.

[00:38:00] Stephanie: (sighs) This is controversial, but it’s important. I think many Indigenous communities have a lot of healing to do, intergenerationally. You know, we have our elders who are so valuable to us and know so much. And most of them, many of them are willing to pass the baton and share their knowledge and encourage us to share that with each other. But there are some who just don’t. 

Stephanie (VO): During this conversation, I was specifically reflecting on how colonization has impacted the way we treat women, folks from the LGBTQ+ community, and descendants who don’t meet blood quantum requirements, but have been a part of the tribe their whole lives. 

Stephanie: The next generation are the people who are going to carry on our culture, our language.

They’re gonna go further in making decisions that will affect our finances on the tribe. The laws that are implemented into our government systems. 

You know, our ancestors worked so hard to even have us here today. They went through hell. There was a lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears that we will never understand, and I think it would be only to honor them that we continue to trust younger generations because without that we just die out. 

One of the most beautiful things about my culture is the priority is community and family and that’s something that is instilled into us as we grow up. 

I have no siblings, so I was constantly surrounded by my elders. I would sit at the coffee table with my grandma and her siblings and I’d listen to them talk all the time. 

And my grandpa, he would, you know, pull out these old pictures of him and his friends and holding these puppies and it’s just, that’s what life is really about for Indigenous people. 

And I think most of us, if you’re not giving back in some way, then really what are you doing it for?

[00:40:09] Charlotte (VO): I asked Stephanie what she’s learned from curating this project, since she’s so personally connected to the story of Miguel Trujillo.

[00:40:17] Stephanie: So I had heard about Miguel Trujillo, but I had never dug into who he was and what he did until this project, which is crazy because he’s from Isleta. 

He earned these rights for us not very long ago, and I was very inspired throughout this project, and I learned a lot about bravery. He did something that not a lot of people wanted him to do. And in our, you know, other episodes, we cover those reasons, but he still took that risk. 

And I think the more I also learned about Felix Cohen, who was his attorney… Felix Cohen was a Jewish man, who I think originally was from Manhattan and found himself working in the Pueblos for Native American voting rights.

And to me, that’s just so funny, but as I talked to, you know, Miguel Trujillo’s family and his grandkids and his son, Felix Cohen and Miguel Trujillo had a lot in common. And they got along really well. And there’s a story of Felix climbing into the Trujillo family home to serve himself some bread. And then he leaves a note and leaves.

Charlotte:  (laughs) So he made himself at home. 

Stephanie: Exactly. Yeah, they were friends. And I think it really takes teamwork like that to make things happen. And having open mindedness with working with people who may not necessarily look like you or have similar experiences as you, and being able to bring those strengths together to achieve these huge wins.

And so that’s, that’s kind of one of the lessons I’ve learned is, you know, like it really is valuable to have people from all kinds of different backgrounds, all kinds of different cultures coming together, as long as they all have the same vision that is human rights and equal rights. 

And I’ve also learned to stick to my guns. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more shy when it comes to making changes in my own tribal community. I’ve shied away from that a little bit because I’m a little bit fearful of who’s going to approve or who’s going to disapprove, or doing things wrong. 

Miguel Trujillo has really re-inspired me to not be so fearful. You know, as long as you’re being respectful and kind and you have the good intentions, that’s really what matters.

[Nature sounds and music]

[00:42:48] Charlotte (VO): We’ve reached the end of season four. I really want to thank my co-host, Stephanie Padilla. 

[00:42:53] Stephanie (VO): Thank you so much for having me, Charlotte. I hope everyone enjoyed the season. 

[00:42:58] Charlotte (VO): Yeah, let us know. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Send us an email. My address is in the show notes in the episode description in your listening app and at

[Season Outro. Theme music fades in.]

Charlotte (VO): Encounter Culture is a production of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. This season was produced in collaboration with the New Mexico History Museum with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Stephanie (VO): We are especially grateful to the family of Miguel and Ruchanda Trujillo, and to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Charlotte (VO): Our show’s producer is Andrea Klunder at The Creative Impostor Studios. 

Stephanie (VO): Season 4 is produced and edited by Alex Riegler, Monica Braine, and Andrea Klunder. 

Charlotte (VO): Our recording engineer is Kabby at Kabby Sound Studios in Santa Fe. 

Stephanie (VO): Post-production audio by Edwin R. Ruiz. 

Charlotte (VO): Show notes by Lisa Widder and social media design by Caitlin Sunderland.

Stephanie (VO): Our executive producer is Daniel Zillmann. 

Charlotte (VO): Thank you to New Mexico artists El Brujo, D’Santi Nava for our theme music. And to Clark Tenakhongva, Gary Stroutsos, and Matthew Nelson for the incredible Hopi music featured throughout all six episodes of this season. Their new album is set to release in August 2023, and will be available for purchase on Bandcamp and at We’ve included the links for you in the show notes.

Stephanie (VO): For a full transcript and show notes, visit or click the link in the episode description in your listening app. 

Charlotte (VO): I’m your host, Charlotte Jusinski. 

Stephanie (VO): And I’m your co-host, Stephanie Padilla.

Charlotte (VO): The Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs is your hub for the state’s exceptional museums, historic sites, and cultural institutions. 

Stephanie (VO): From Native treasures to space exploration, world class folk art to awesome dinosaurs, we celebrate the essence of New Mexico every day. 

Charlotte (VO): Remember to head to to enter to win four culture passes and a subscription to El Palacio. Enter before August 31st, 2023. Thanks for listening.

[Theme music fades out.]