She started “Ride to the Polls” in early October, hoping to empower Native American youth to vote in the 2020 election, while connecting with their cultural heritage. She leads groups on horseback along a 10-mile route from Church Rock in Navajo County to the polling stations in Kayenta, Ariz.
Navajo Nation spans 27,000 square miles, and occupies portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Horseback riding is common in the community.
Young led a group of 15 Navajo voters on horseback on Oct. 20, most of whom range in age from 18 to 30. When they arrived at the polling station, they were met by a crowd of Native American people who were there to cast their ballots, too, after hearing about Ride to the Polls through social media and word of mouth.
Before saddling up, Young’s mother carefully tied a traditional Diné sash around her waist and outfitted her in customary beaded jewelry.
“I am doing this to honor our ancestors who fought for our right to vote, so I wanted to wear traditional clothes,” said Young.
Native American communities historically have faced barriers and inconveniences in the voting process, which discourage them from voting. They were not given voting rights in every U.S. state until 1962, and have had problems since, including in the 2018 midterm elections, when many tribal ID cards were deemed invalid.
Today, poor access to voter registration offices and polling stations, limited transportation, and excessive mail delays, among other logistical hurdles, makes voting in the U.S. election burdensome for many in tribal communities. Complicating matters, some in the community live miles from their closest neighbor, and do not have a mailbox or street address.
But Native Americans potentially have the political force to shift the outcome of the election, particularly in Arizona. There are 67,000 eligible Navajo voters in the swing state, and their vote could prove pivotal in the polls.
OJ Semans, co-executive director of Four Directions, a nonpartisan organization centered on Native American voting rights, echoed the challenges indigenous people face when they wish to vote.
“In terms of how difficult it is to access voting places, on a scale of one to ten, I would say it’s a nine,” said Semans. “Our numbers would skyrocket if we had the equal opportunity to vote.”
“The younger generation is stepping up,” he said, commending Young’s activism in the Navajo community. “They are no longer going to stand idly by.”
Young said Ride to the Polls was originally her father’s idea.
“He had a vision of us riding our horses to protect our people,” said Young. She quickly realized it was the perfect way to get the Navajo community excited about voting.
Her father, Frank, 58, wasn’t initially feeling encouraged to vote in the election, but the prospect of riding on horseback to the polls energized him.
“It’s given me strength and I hope it gives us strength as a nation,” said Frank Young, who was born on the reservation and has always lived there.
He said he was humbled to lead the trail ride alongside his daughter.
“It brought back a sense of community,” he said. “I saw people driving after us and following us to the polls. They were excited and proud.”
Although Allie Young leads relatively small groups to voting stations, the Ride to the Polls concept has left a mark on Native Americans across the country, she said, adding that she has received countless messages from other members of tribal communities that were inspired by her.
“They tell me that after seeing the video, they went out and voted,” said Young. “It makes me feel proud that people are inspired by our culture and what we continuously fight for.”
She said traveling by horseback is a way to pay tribute to her ancestors, adding that horses are a spiritual and sacred animal in Diné (Navajo) culture.
“It’s also a reminder of what we’re fighting for: to protect not only our culture but our sacred land and Mother Earth,” she said.
Young, an activist for indigenous Americans, works through her nonprofit Protect the Sacred, to help register voters in Indian country and also encourage Indigenous community members to complete the 2020 Census.
She founded Protect the Sacred in March, with the initial goal of supporting Native communities that are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Young also works at Harness, an L.A.-based nonprofit that highlights historically marginalized communities.
“We started by focusing on covid relief, but we’ve now shifted to the most important election of our lifetime,” said Young. “We can’t sit this one out.”
According to a recent report by the Native American Rights Fund, only 66 percent of the Native American population is registered to vote across the country, leaving more than a million eligible voters unregistered.
Young said this doesn’t surprise her.
“A lot of young Native people aren’t motivated to vote,” said Young. “They question why we should participate in a colonial system that has never worked for us.”
She said they are also “feeling frustrated with the divisiveness across the country.”
With voting challenges exacerbated by the pandemic — and the general lack of motivation to vote expressed by Native youth — Young feared her peers would not care to cast their ballots in this critical election.
Talia Mayden ventured from New Mexico to photograph the ride. It was her first time in Navajo Nation, and she described the landscape as “unlike anything I had ever seen.”
“It feels pretty rare in this election cycle that we ever get a moment that makes you feel proud to be American, and I felt proud,” said Mayden, 26. “I felt so much awe, which is something I haven’t felt in a long time.”
For Young, “It was a very spiritual experience,” she said. “Looking out and seeing miles and miles of untouched earth reminded me of what I was fighting for.”
Young has planned a third trail ride for Election Day, and she expects the rider turnout to be the biggest yet.
“The voting force is strong is Indian country because our voices are powerful,” she said. “They deserve to be heard.”