Nevada is home to 27 federally recognized Indian tribes and an estimated 50,000 Native Americans.
But until last year, their members didn’t have their own caucus in state Democratic Party.
They do now.
The husband and wife team of Brian and Teresa Melendez formed a caucus last year, one of just 14 Native American state caucuses in the country.
They did it, in part, to organize members and get them to vote.
"For us, as the caucus, we are a body of tribal people trying to create a space for other indigenous people in the state to have a political voice within the Democratic Party,” Brian Melendez told KNPR's State of Nevada.
The state party has a rural caucus, a young Democrats and a black caucus.
Brian Melendez said the focus of the caucus is to improve engagement for native people.
“We had an intuitive need to make sure we had the ability to do a couple of things," he said, "One of which was to organize and create avenues for people to make their way into the Democratic Party, into the political system. The other thing we wanted to do was create opportunities and create resources and networks for tribal people and other indigenous people who want to hold space and seats in political office.”
Brian Melendez said native people don't feel they have a place at the political table and have never been included in discussions.
“We needed to make sure that our voices were heard and our presence was known within the party, that people would know that we were engaged and that we wanted to participate and that we weren’t going anywhere,” he said.
Teresa Melendez said she became interested in creating the Native American Caucus after her family in Michigan became involved in one there.
She and her husband had been active in Native American causes in Northern Nevada for some time but now they wanted to see what they could do to organize tribes politically.
Teresa Melendez said one of the goals of the group is to show tribal communities the value of voting in local, state and federal elections. She said members are more likely to vote in tribal elections than in state or federal elections.
Another goal is to find people interested in running for office.
“We know that when other natives run for office it really inspires and mobilizes Native voters...often times, we don’t see ourselves reflected in the political process,” she said, “There aren’t people speaking about our issues. There aren’t people that represent our community and there aren’t people who look like us holding those positions.”
She said when people see people who look like them in political office the whole process seems less intimidating.
That feeling of being unwelcome in spaces they are unfamiliar with is a major part of the caucus' efforts, the couple said.
Brian Melendez said for historical reasons many Native Americans are distrustful of the federal government and unfamiliar with its systems.
“We have to work with the communities to help instill a knowledge and value for the systems that we are asking them to participate in because we are asking individuals to participate not only in the electoral process but we’re asking them to participate in the economic systems, the social systems, the academic systems,” he said.
Brian Melendez said there are many indigenous people who have never voted before, are first-generation college students, or the first in their family to own a business.
He said it is a huge process to inform and educate tribal members about systems that aren't hereditarily their own.
The Native American Caucus and the Democratic Party worked so solve some of those issues. For the first time, there will be four early voting caucus sites and four caucus day sites on Native American reservations in Nevada.
Brian Melendez, Chair, Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus; Teresa Melendez, Vice Chair, Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus
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