The AZ Legislative Majority Pressures Native Lawmakers

The AZ Legislative Majority Pressures Native Lawmakers

Native Americans have inhabited what is now Arizona for tens of thousands of years. Arizona has 22 federally recognized tribes and the second-largest total Native American population of any state. 

Indigenous peoples live in every community and every corner of our state. Legislation passed by the Arizona Legislature impacts them greatly. Several of Arizona’s indigenous lawmakers participated in an “Indigenous Perspectives” panel to discuss this impact and the tactics employed to pressure them as Native leaders at the state Capitol.  Read on for a summary of this incredible conversation, or watch the recording here

Arm-Twisting of Indigenous Lawmakers

Last session, when Gov. Ducey and the legislative majority were attempting to force through voucher expansion in the state budget, indigenous lawmakers were subjected to hostility, horse trading, and arm twisting.

As Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren explained, “When I was seeking funding for Hopi Route 60 specifically, I was asking for a $5 million appropriation… to pave 2-3 miles of Hopi Route 60. During budget negotiations, I was asked to vote in favor of the voucher expansion bill and that in return I would receive funding and appropriation for projects like Hopi 60 and Ganado Loop Road. And as a very young legislator and as a woman very new to the legislature, I was specifically targeted for those reasons and pressured very heavily by the Republicans in the legislature, as well as even Navajo leadership came and lobbied me pretty heavily to vote in favor of the voucher expansion with the understanding that certain things would be returned to me in response of that vote.”

Private School Vouchers Harm Native Communities

In response to this pressure, Blackwater-Nygren eloquently explained her vote against voucher expansion in light of the missing and murdered indigenous children whose remains were found buried under Canadian and American boarding schools this year. “I was very deeply offended that I was asked to vote in favor of voucher expansion because as Native Americans we have a very, very long history of our ancestors attending boarding schools, forcibly attending private religious boarding schools against our will. Being forcibly taken from our homes, our homelands and in some instances never being able to return home,” she recounts.

Rep. Blackwater-Nygren explained the generational trauma of private schools on Native communities: “There’s this long legacy of the trauma that those who did attend boarding schools then brought home. It’s been extremely harmful to our Native communities, not just the traumatic experiences, but the loss of language and culture that entire families and communities faced because of the forced removal from homes, and these schools were open as late as the 1980s and ’90s.”

She then made a connection to modern private schools and the massive voucher expansion Governor Ducey was trying to force through: “The connection between boarding schools and the voucher program I think is pretty obvious if you look at who benefits from the voucher programs.” Rep. Blackwater-Nygren pointed out the beneficiaries are largely private and religious schools, and said, “To be asked to further the legacy of boarding schools was really just insulting to me.”

The connection between boarding schools and the voucher program I think is pretty obvious if you look at who benefits from the voucher programs. To be asked to further the legacy of boarding schools was really just insulting to me.

Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren Tweet
Cover Art for recent Facebook Live Event.

Political Pressure & Exploitation

Legislative leadership held hostage much needed repair of critical roads for Native communities in exchange for votes to expand vouchers. Allowing roads in these communities to remain in such disrepair negatively impacts the students at those schools and increases school bus repair costs. Rep. Blackwater-Nygren says majority leadership made it clear they were only willing to approve the Ganado Loop and Hopi 60 projects if indigenous lawmakers also voted for the massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher program. This underscores the pressure Arizona lawmakers face from special interests like Betsy DeVos, the Goldwater Institute, and the Kochs to expand voucher programs at all costs

As Rep. Jennifer Jermaine pointed out, “School buses are very expensive. If they’re driving on roads that have huge potholes and get washed out, that’s broken axles, that’s additional tires, that’s wear and tear on vehicles. And those school buses last a lot less years in those areas than they do in urban areas. If we’re looking at the impact to taxpayers, paving a road is going to save a lot more money than replacing a school bus every 5 years or an axle three times a year.” 

What Do Students in Native Communities Need?

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai described in detail what students in indigenous communities need. As she said, “It really comes down to a simple and basic answer: leverage of resources. The [legislative] majority reward themselves with resources.” Peshlakai notes that other legislators have a “false idea implanted in their minds” that native tribes have unlimited access to federal dollars and asking for state resources means they are greedy. 

“In the meantime, the impact is less for our communities, less for our elders, less for our children,” she said. “There is an ‘us and them’ mentality…There is no responsibility for the state of Arizona to provide access to education. Thus our communities are punished by this ignorance and also they are allowed to be neglected.”

Rep. Jermaine points to the lack of access to counselors and social workers in every single public school district. “The Gila Indian River Community and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe fund programs within our local school district to support our Indian Ed program. Within native communities, we’ve seen a lot of death and heartache from Covid-19 and the children are shouldering that… They need more resources from the state to be able to do this.”

There is an ‘us and them’ mentality…There is no responsibility for the state of Arizona to provide access to education. Thus [Native] communities are punished by this ignorance and also they are allowed to be neglected.

How Can We Solve These Issues?

Sen. Peshlakai put it best: “We need people, Indigenous people, to run for every office in every city, town, and county in Arizona. That’s important because somewhere in our minds we were told you can only run on the reservations. We should not limit ourselves… The leaders are us.”

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