Remembering activist who helped Native Americans gain voting rights in New Mexico
In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, we are highlighting prominent Native American individuals in New Mexico that made an impact. Miguel Trujillo from Isleta Pueblo was an activist who fought for Native Americans to have the right to vote. There is an exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum about his life and work through February. Anthropologist Gordon Bronitsky spoke to KUNM about Trujillo’s lasting legacy.
GORDON BRONITSKY: The New Mexico State Constitution of 1912 denied Indians the right to vote, because they were considered people not taxed, which referred to tribal trust land. The United States granted citizenship to Indians in 1924. But even then, Indians in New Mexico and for that matter, Arizona, were not allowed to vote. Part of it, or almost all of it probably was politics. New Mexico was a heavily Republican state before World War II and I think for many politicians, the idea of allowing 80,000 people to vote, who would have probably voted Democratic, American Indians, was not appealing.
KUNM: What can you tell me about Miguel Trujillo, what was he like?
BRONITSKY: Part of it was that he was incredibly persistent, his father died when he was very young in Isleta and his mother had to support all the children by herself. And he went to school and people started telling him to drop out and support his family. And he said no and then he went on to what was then the Haskell Institute and he continued to support himself by working in the beet fields in the summer, and ultimately met a woman from Laguna named Ruchanda Paisano. And they married, he got his degree, and he moved to Laguna where he taught at the day school.
KUNM: What happened to Miguel the first time he tried to register to vote?
BRONITSKY: He only tried to register once before the lawsuit. He tried to register at Valencia County in Los Lunas. And according to his late daughter, Josephine, the registrar was actually a friend of his but his attempt to register to vote was turned down.
Anyway, he began talking about the right to vote. Frankly, many veterans of many different ethnic groups came back from World War II and were not allowed to vote and said, ‘what were we just fighting for? Why did we go through this?” And he put it to what was then the only Indian Pueblo Council that they should work with him to get the right to vote for Indians and the council refused. And he decided to just push ahead on his own with his attorney, a man named Felix Cohen, who was an attorney in Washington and ultimately wrote the federal Handbook of American Indian Law, which is still the groundwork for every American Indian law course taught in the United States. So at the time, Miguel Trujillo brought his suit against the state of New Mexico, Felix Cohen was Laguna’s Attorney.
KUNM: Did Miguel and his associates face any hostility or violence towards them?
BRONITSKY: Every right that Americans have is there because somebody fought for it. And Miguel certainly faced it. And ultimately, he and his attorney took the refusal to allow him to register to vote to the appellate court, which is a three judge panel. And the appellate court ruled that New Mexico's constitution that denied Indians the right to vote because they were not taxed, was unconstitutional, because it violated the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed equal treatment under the law, regardless of race, color, creed, or previous servitude. So that is ultimately why the relevant section of the 1912 constitution was overturned, it was regarded as discriminatory. And it brought the right to vote.
KUNM: What are your reasons for researching Miguel and why you continue to do so?
BRONITSKY: I'm not a Native American, I've always voted. And here's the reason why. I researched his history with particularly his daughter, Josephine, and other members of the family in the 80s. And I got the incredible honor after he passed that the family asked me to give his eulogy at the church at Isleta. And I said to them, ‘Are you sure? I mean, this is the Isleta Pueblo, I'm not Native American.” And they said, absolutely. And it was at that point that I made a promise to Josephine. I promised her that I would talk about Miguel Trujillo every chance I got.
KUNM: How important is it for figures like Miguel Trujillo to not be forgotten in the pages of history?
BRONITSKY: We all know many of the famous civil rights heroes: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks. Albuquerque has streets named after Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. Why don't we know anything about Miguel Trujillo? And what's particularly, frankly, depressing to me is when I talk to young people, particularly at Laguna Pueblo and Isleta Pueblo, they have no idea who he was. Who? What?
For a lot of people, it doesn't fit into what everybody knows Indians do. Voting? That's an Indian thing. Who knew? And I honestly believe that every Native politician in New Mexico stands on Miguel’s shoulders, and most of them know what he did.
Support for this coverage comes from the Thornburg Foundation and KUNM listeners.