Lisa Montelongo remembers the long road trips made as a child from California to the Qualla Boundary. Her mother raised her family on the west coast but made sure her children knew their Cherokee roots. “Being Native, you have no choice but to understand who you are,” Lisa explains. At age eighteen, she moved permanently to the North Carolina Cherokee reservation, and since then it has been home to her own children and grandchildren; undoubtedly, it will be a much-cherished home to family generations yet to come.
“We are all guests on this land,” clarifies Lisa, “and we need to protect it.” Political action is part of that care ethic. Lisa recalls the frequent motorcades this past summer and fall that honked horns, revved engines, and waved MAGA flags. The motorcades showed up in Sylva, Bryson City, Waynesville, and Maggie Valley, tracing the outline of the Qualla Boundary and putting people on edge. “It was old fashioned intimidation,” she states, “meant to make people not feel comfortable or feel like outsiders on their own land.”
In response, Lisa joined with Down Home and the Native Vote 2020 initiative; the idea was to register local folk to vote and to then protect the polling locations where Cherokee voters and other local residents would cast ballots. Lisa, along with her daughter and other neighbors, helped to register sixty-five people; most of those individuals were first-time voters. She says that registering an 85-year-old woman to vote in her first election helped her understand the pivotal moment both the Qualla Boundary and the nation is in.
“Racism is nothing new here,” she says. “There is a lot of historical trauma in our community and a deep mistrust because of this. Having a presence at the polling places helped to make it feel safe for the people I know.”
In solidarity with Lisa’s views, Down Home North Carolina mobilized members from Graham to Cherokee. Beginning with early voting, and continuing through election day itself, over fifty Down Home members and volunteers worked to create a welcoming presence at polling stations across rural North Carolina and to protect the right of voters to cast their votes without intimidation. At Down Home, we believe this to be central to American democracy.