Trujillo v. Garley: The Struggle for Native American Voting Rights

Although the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote in the United States, many minority women and men, remained disenfranchised for decades. In the long struggle for Native American civil and voting rights, the court case Trujillo v. Garley acted as a vital step by removing the constitutional provision that blocked Native Americans in New Mexico from voting.

Even after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, not all women gained the right to vote. Native American women, along with men, remained disenfranchised for decades. The process of ensuring Native American civil and voting rights has stretched out over many years and pieces of legislation. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside,” gave African Americans citizenship and technically granted the right to vote to all male citizens, even though multiple states disenfranchised African Americans for decades. Native Americans were excluded from this amendment and from citizenship based on arguments that they did not pay taxes and that they existed under the jurisdiction of their native tribes and not the federal government. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the US Constitution read “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” but the same arguments about taxation and tribal jurisdiction meant that it did not extend to Native American women. It wasn’t until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 that all Native Americans born in the United States were granted citizenship, but this act did not ensure full citizenship rights, such as the right to vote.

Many western states, such as Arizona and New Mexico, contained large populations of Native Americans and a great amount of tribal land. However, these states did not allow Native Americans to vote or limited their voting rights. Some arguments that Western states used to disenfranchise Native Americans included that Native Americans who lived on reservations did not pay state taxes, or that this made them wards of the government who were therefore ineligible to vote. Both states and the federal government used the argument about the ward status of Native Americans as expressed in the Supreme Court case Cherokee v. Georgia: "Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.They look to our government for protection, rely upon its kindness and its power; appeal to it for relief to their wants; and address the President as their great father." It wasn’t until the 1940s that significant strides were made to extend voting rights to Native Americans.

A high percentage of the Native American population served in World War II, but when they returned, they confronted the reality that they were not allowed to vote in the country they had served. This was the experience of Miguel Trujillo, a Marine in WWII, schoolteacher, and member of the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico. In 1948, Trujillo felt he had the right to vote as a citizen and veteran, but the county registrar Eloy Garley refused to allow him to register. Trujillo took Garley to court and sued for the right to vote. Like several other states, New Mexico held that “Indians not taxed” could not vote. Trujillo challenged this by pointing out that although he did not pay property taxes since he lived on pueblo lands, he still paid other forms of taxes like federal income tax, gasoline taxes, and sales tax. The three-judge panel in Albuquerque, NM ruled in Trujillo’s favor and found that the provisions in the New Mexico constitution violated both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Judge Orie Phillips, speaking for the three-judge panel, stated: “[The constitution of New Mexico] says that “Indians not taxed” may not vote, although they possess every other qualification. We are unable to escape the conclusion that, under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, that constitutes a discrimination on the ground of race. Any other citizen, regardless of race, in the State of New Mexico who has not paid one cent of tax of any kind or character, if he possesses the other qualification, may vote. An Indian, and only an Indian, in order to meet the qualifications to vote must have paid a tax. How you can escape the conclusion that makes a requirement with respect to an Indian as a qualification to exercise the elective franchise and does not make that requirement with respect to the member of any race is beyond me.” Thanks to this court case, Native Americans living in New Mexico legally had the right to vote, regardless of whether they lived on tribal lands.

Trujillo v. Garley removed the legal and constitutional barriers that prevented Native Americans living on tribal lands in New Mexico from voting. However, this wasn’t the end of the struggle for Native American voting rights. Also in 1948 in Arizona, the case of Harrison v. Laveen decided that “the term "persons under guardianship" has no application to the plaintiffs or to the Federal status of Indians in Arizona,” which removed the legal barrier preventing Native Americans in Arizona from voting. Utah was the last Western state, in 1957, to remove state statutes preventing Native Americans from voting. However, many state officials created other barriers to Native American suffrage, such as printing ballots only in English and not in native languages, putting ballot boxes and voting places far from reservations and native lands, gerrymandering districts in such a way to break up Native American communities, or requiring certain forms of ID that many Native Americans do not possess. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped, some of these barriers still exist today.. Native American women and men continue to work to encourage their people to vote and exercise their political influence, as recently demonstrated by the 2018 election of the first two Native American women to Congress, including Debra Haaland from New Mexico.