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Arizona tribal leaders launch a political advocacy group to encourage Indigenous voters – The Arizona Republic

A group of Arizona tribal leaders introduced a new advocacy group Thursday to encourage Indigenous Arizonans to become more politically active and show up at the polls.

The group, known as Indigenous Baaja Ádaaní Al Son, is the first statewide tribal 501(c)(4) political organization in Arizona. The name is a combination of four different languages — English, Havasupai, Navajo and Oʼodham — to emphasize the goal of strengthening all tribal nations in Arizona to vote.

The group held its formal launch at the K’é Main Street Learning Lab in Mesa, where tribal leaders who are a part of the initiative came together to discuss the need for Indigenous voters to show up at the polls.

“There’s so much more to say about that with respect to language groupings,” said Eric Descheenie, Indigenous Baaja Ádaaní Al Son executive director. “When you bring in the people with those particular language groupings, our politics extend the political boundaries of today’s Arizona.”

The purpose for the Native-led advocacy group is to mobilize and engage Native voters throughout the state. The organization is a coalition of leaders and advocates from different tribal communities working to build long-term statewide political power for Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Baaja Ádaaní Al Son so far consists of Descheenie, a former Democratic member of the Arizona House of Representatives; Herminia Frias a council member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe; Verlon Jose former chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation; and Carletta Tilousi, former council member for the Havasupai Tribal Council.

“When Eric called and said this would be good for the Arizona Indigenous community, I completely agreed with him,” said Frias. “I think it is important for our Indigenous community to continue to be active and engage more people. I think we have shown that in our vote from the last election.”

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Native voters influence 2020 elections

In November 2020, the Indigenous vote was shown to be a major factor in President Joe Biden’s win in Arizona and helped turn the state from red to blue in presidential voting for the first time in over 20 years. Leaders said the shift highlighted how important and powerful the Indigenous vote is.

“The vote matters because it matters who you vote for at all levels,” said Frias. “It impacts us at the community level.”

Jose said this group did not come into being overnight. When he was approached by Descheenie to join the coalition, there was a lot of talk that had to go into it. He said Indigenous voters need to be united at the polls.

“Who is going to change the narrative,” said Jose. “Who is going to bring the change amongst us? Is it me? Is it you? It’s the people of our lands, whether that’s tribal, county, state, national or international. We need to be on the world forefront. We’ve always been.”

He said the purpose of the group is education, not about forcing people to vote, but rather to get educated about voting.

“There’s a new choice of weapon,” said Jose. “Something no one can take away from you. That weapon is education, and we are going to educate about your rights, your opportunity to change the narrative one vote at a time.”

Many Indigenous students are told to get an education and come back to help their people, something Tilousi reflected on. She said when young people come back after getting their education, they can’t help but see the challenges their communities are facing. As a tribal leader and knowing the challenges that exist, she said joining Indigenous Baaja Ádaaní Al Son would help address those challenges.

“I agreed to sit on this new board to bring out the need for people’s voices to be heard through the cast of a vote,” said Tilousi. “We do have to educate our communities.”

The board members come from four different tribes, but they are all similar in that there are challenges they want to see addressed, and they said that can only happen through the voting process by electing people who have their best interest at heart.

“In our history we are all divided onto reservations,” said Tilousi. “Let’s not stay on our reservations, let’s all work together to address these concerns so we can have clean water, laws to protect our animals, that will protect our people. That’s the work I’d like to see through this new organization.”

Stakes are high for Arizona tribes

The success of Indigenous Baaja Ádaaní Al Son relies heavily on those they recruit to educate community members. Descheenie said they have brought on talented individuals who understand why this mission is important and who have a genuine love and care for the Indigenous people, but who also can do the job well, accurately and efficiently.

“Our first steps are actually to continue our steps as tribal leaders and organize the work we have already been doing, but to amplify them even more,” said Jose. “Our first step is to continue them, to walk on the land of our people, be that on the reservation or be that in the city.”

The stakes are always high for tribes in Arizona when it comes to who is elected to represent them, the leaders said. Each one expressed one of the many issues that their community faces daily, and how voting for the right person can help immensely to get on a path to rectify the problems.

“For the Havasupai tribe, we are fighting to keep water,” said Tilousi. “Water is the most important thing for us. Not only is my tribe named after water, but we feel the water in the Grand Canyon needs to be protected from uranium mines. We want our sacred sites to be protected that have been taken away from us, that are currently sitting on Federal Forest lands.”

They need to respect cultural ways, the religious connections to these areas, and that’s why the right person who can represent tribal voices is needed in Washington, she said.

“We are not going anywhere,” said Tilousi. “We are here. We have been here for a long time and our voices will remain strong when it comes to protecting our water and sacred sites.”

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Respect for people can affect actions

Health care, but with the focus of the social determinants and their effects on people’s well-being, is an issue that Frias said must be addressed. She said Indigenous people continue to suffer with the highest rates of cancer, diabetes, young morbidity rate. Social determinants — the factors such as where people live and work and the conditions there — are the key of understanding why this is the way it is.

“That is why I’m passionate about voting and advocacy,” said Frias. “You can have a health care system but it’s not going to be the health care system that’s going to solve our health issues. It’s focusing on the social determinants of health that is going to make a difference on the health of our tribal citizens.”

Jose said to pick one issue is difficult, but he said respecting tribal people as equals is a must and will make everything much better.

“When we can respect one another, we can go a long way at the local, county, state, and federal levels,” said Jose. “That is one thing I like to change because many people don’t have respect. Many things they are doing to Indian country is because they don’t have respect for our lives.”

Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to

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