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Then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt prepares to discuss the national work relief program and Social Security during one of his famed fireside chats on April 28, 1935. Photo: Library of Congress
Notes from Indian Country
What political party did most Native Americans choose and why?
Monday, September 28, 2020

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Indian reservations particularly hard. Tribes were already struggling to survive under all of the new laws and restrictions placed upon them by the United States Government heading into the depression.

The reservation system was in its formative years and the government and the Indian tribes were adjusting to the rapid changes impacting the lives of thousands of Native Americans. Indians did not become United States citizens with the right to vote or run for public office until 1924, just a few years heading into the Great Depression.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in order to create jobs and to get America back on its feet.

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A post office on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Mobridge, South Dakota, was built as part of the Works Progress Administration. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM

The unemployment rate in 1935 was at a staggering 20 percent. The WPA was designed to provide relief for the unemployed by providing jobs and income for millions of Americans. At its height in late 1938, more than 3.3 million Americans worked for the WPA.

The WPA – which in 1939 was renamed the Work Projects Administration – employed mostly unskilled men to carry out public works infrastructure projects. They built more than 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees.

The CCC provided jobs primarily for new construction in national parks which required the workers to plant millions of new trees and build some of the structures that are still the foundation of the national parks system.

Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

And so thousands of Native Americans went to work to build roads, bridges, schools, tribal administration buildings and hospitals on all of the Indian reservations. All of them knew that their new jobs and new hopes for the future came because of one man; Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Is it any wonder then that when it came to choosing a political party nearly all Native Americans chose the Democratic Party. And that is the way it is even to this day.

For most Indians it was the first time they had an opportunity to learn a viable trade and to move into the class of skilled laborers rather than simply unskilled workers. They learned brick laying, cement work, carpentry, electrical skills, plumbing skills and heavy construction and so on, skills they would use when their own tribal governments began to move in that direction of self-governance.

And so as it turns out the WPA and the CCC camps of the Great Depression provided more than just an opportunity to work and feed their families during the hard times, they provided an opportunity to apprentice at the new jobs that would provide them a meaningful life. And although women were not allowed to participate in the WPA or CCC programs they took up the associated skills of working in the hospitals to provide health care for the men working in the camps and to take jobs as teachers to fill in the teaching positions available from the influx of so many new children to the reservations.

The Democratic Party gained many new members in Indian Country because of the man they called FDR and because of his work programs to bring America out of the Great Depression. So if you might wonder why so many Native Americans are Democrats, there you have it.


Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota) has been a newspaper publisher for 40 years and was the founder of the Native American Journalists Association. Contact him at najournalist1@gmail.com.