A Political Turning Point for Native Americans

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Who will be Indian Country’s Obama? Look to the states. Her name will be Paulette, Peggy, or Denise.


By Mark Trabant / 07.26.2016

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Joe Garry was president of the National Congress of American Indians in an era when tribal rights were under assault from Congress. House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed in August 1953, declared that the federal government should “terminate” its responsibilities toward Native Americans, essentially breaking promises made through solemn treaties.

The threat was real. In a period of 30 years, more than a hundred tribes were disbanded and the tribal governments dissolved. The result was huge losses of land and natural resources in Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas.

Garry’s plan to counter that threat included the addition of more Native American voices to the country’s conversations. The strongest weapon in this battle is the power to vote, Garry said. So I’ll begin the story of Native America’s growing political voice in Idaho, where Garry was the chairman of the Coeur d’Alene tribe. He ran for the Idaho House of Representatives and was elected in 1957. Later, he won a seat in the the Idaho Senate, and in 1960 sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate.

Idaho is a surprising birthplace for Joe Garry’s legacy. Not many Native Americans live in Idaho, where they comprise roughly 1 percent of the population. Garry’s successes showed that someone from a tribal community could be a leader for all of the citizens in a state.

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Joe Garry

In 1975, Garry’s niece Jeanne Givens became the first Native woman elected to the Idaho House of Representatives. Like her uncle, she challenged the status quo with a bid for Congress in 1988. Givens lost, but four years ago another Coeur d’Alene tribal member, Paulette Jordan, ran for the Idaho House seat. She lost that attempt but won in 2014, illustrating what may be the most important lesson in politics: You have to run to win—sometimes more than once. Jordan describes Givens as a mentor who has taught her much about politics. Both have earned the legacy of Joe Garry.

Larry Echo Hawk won a seat in the Idaho Legislature in 1992. After serving two terms he ran for and won election as the Bannock County prosecuting attorney—another first. Then, in 1990 he was elected attorney general of Idaho and became one of the few Native Americans to ever win a statewide office. Four years later he ran for governor, but he lost.

When a state like Idaho has a history of electing Native Americans to public office, you have to wonder, “Where else?” It has almost been a story of success-by-stealth.

There is a win in Arizona, another in Kansas. And when you add them up, there are at least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians serving in 19 state legislatures.

Why hasn’t the scope of this story been told before? Because each race is local; no one has ever collected all of the data that make a complete picture. So at the start of the election season I set out to build a complete list of Native Americans running for state and federal office. My list is always changing, but there are seven candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, one for the U.S. Senate, and some 80 state legislative candidates. (What I really like is that it’s crowdsourced: Every time I publish the latest candidate charts at TrahantReports.com, readers let me know who I have missed.)

I’d love to proclaim this to be a record year, but there’s nothing to measure against. We don’t know how many Native Americans have taken the plunge in previous election cycles. We do know, however, who has won.

One source for that information is membership in the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. This is an association of people already elected, so it tells us more about what happened in 2014 than in 2016. Still, it’s important for three reasons: First, if you look at the body of work of these state senators and representatives, you’ll find that they advocate for better services, more funding, and improving relationships between tribal nations and state governments. Second, there is a mechanism to share information with each other about what works (and what does not). And third, this association is the talent pool for federal posts, from Congress to the White House.

Remember, it was just 1996 when Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate.

To see the growing influence of Native Americans elected to office we need only to look at Montana.

Right now, the big story there is Denise Juneau, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and grew up in the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana. She has already won two statewide contests, so she knows what it takes to win Montana’s only U.S. House seat. If successful, she (along with Arizona congressional candidate Victoria Steele) would be the first American Indian woman in Congress.

Yet the Montana story is richer than just Juneau. Some 20 years ago, Montana was much like any other state with a significant Native American population with only one or two Native Americans serving in the state Legislature. But in 1997, a third Native American candidate won. And again in 2003. By 2007, Native Americans in Montana occupied 10 seats in the state Legislature—6.6 percent of that body. Montana’s population is 7.4 percent Native American.

Today there are three Native Americans in the Montana Senate and five in the Montana House of Representatives, some 5.3 percent of the state Legislature. This is the highest percentage of Native American representation in the country.

Let’s put the Montana percentages in national terms: If Congress were 5.3 percent Native American, that would be five U.S. Senators and 21 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Even if you adjust for population, the number of Native American members of Congress would have to more than double to equal the representation found in Montana.

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YES! Infographic by Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn

After the 2016 election, Montana’s state-level Native representation is likely to grow. There are 11 Native American candidates on Montana’s ballot this year, including Juneau.

Montana’s Native American legislators are in office to raise overlooked issues that are important to their constituents. According to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, this past session produced a number of innovative laws, including Medicaid expansion (a financial boost to the Indian health system) and laws that will improve funding for tribal colleges, support for tribal languages, and streamline Indian business ventures. The success rate of Native American legislators to push through policy changes was less than perfect, but their voices were heard. It’s likely that during the next session many of the ideas that failed to pass will be back on the agenda.

At nearly 1 percent nationwide, the Native American rate of representation in state legislatures still trails that of the nation’s overall population of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. But that’s more than half of the 1.7 percent that make up the Native American population in the United States. Compare that to Congress, where only two elected Native Americans equal only 0.33 percent. Compare that to the federal judiciary, where only one Native American judge equals a representation of about 0.1 percent.

Then consider the young and growing Native American population. Native voters and elected officials are only at the beginning of a demographic trend. The American Indian and Alaska Native population is younger and growing faster than the general population. About one-third of all Native Americans are under the age of 18 (compared to 24 percent for the total population), and the median age for Native Americans is 26 (compared to 37 for the nation).

While it’s overdue for America’s first citizens to have a voice in how governments are run and how the country’s future is shaped, it is happening now. Just imagine what it could mean for climate change policy decisions, for example, to hear from people who think about the future in terms of a 10,000-year history. Imagine also the healing message for a new generation of Native Americans—and for the country as a whole—to finally see in positions of power the people who suffered loss of both lands and culture and genocide.

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YES! Infographic by Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn

This is a story that has been unfolding slowly, chapter by chapter. It started even before Joe Garry, when 19th century tribal treaty negotiators demanded a seat in Congress (a promise never kept). It’s a legacy that is infused with presidential politics, especially when candidates like Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton campaign in tribal communities. The election of Obama elevated the possible. He kept his promises to include tribal nations in his government and in his actions. His rise from community organizer representing poor Black communities illuminated a path to meaningful politics.

It’s also a progressive legacy, of which Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan of the White Earth Ojibwe tribe is an excellent example. Flanagan told The Circle when she was elected, “I have been clear that for myself personally as an Ojibwe woman and mother—but also what I’ve heard from my constituents—is that Minnesotans believe in protecting our land and water. That’s why people live here in the first place. Indian or non-Indian, we live in a really beautiful state, and to throw it all away for short-term financial gain is really troubling to me.”

It’s hard to look across the country and not be optimistic about the quality, and the growing quantity, of Native American political voices. We know the story won’t end here because history tells us that state legislatures are the route that leads the next generation of leaders into Congress—and one day the White House.

So if you want to know who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama, look to the states. Her name will be Paulette Jordan, Peggy Flanagan, or Denise Juneau.

And whoever she is, she will represent Joe Garry’s legacy.

Native Candidates Make a Historic Push for Congress

As the presidential race has demonstrated, 2016 is the year for outsiders, and no group can be considered further from the establishment than Native Americans.

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Standing in front of her high school English class on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota for the first time, Denise Juneau was struck by the responsibility. Looking at the sea of faces in front of her, she knew many of them faced challenges that posed barriers to their education, but she also knew that, as a teacher, she was in a position to help.

That was 20 years ago, when Juneau, an enrolled member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribes, was about to embark on a lifelong career in education.

“I have a deep respect for teachers,” she says—a respect that she believes has informed her two terms as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction.

That job—to which she was first elected in 2008—made Juneau the first Native American woman in the country to win statewide executive office, and now she’s attempting to make history once again. One hundred years after Montana voters elected the first woman to Congress, the state’s voters may make Juneau, 49, the first Native American woman to serve there.

Juneau said she wasn’t aware of her campaign’s historic potential eight years ago. But this time around, that fact looms much larger. “Especially, when I travel to Indian Country, people see a possibility,” she says. “It’s this hope and optimism that our diversity is reflected in places of power.”

Across the West and the country, 2016 is proving to be a historic year for Native candidates. Eight people, including two incumbents, are running for U.S. Congress, while nearly 80 Native candidates are seeking state office. As the presidential race has demonstrated, 2016 is the year for outsiders, and no group can be considered further from the establishment than Native Americans. If Juneau and her fellow candidates can ride this wave and effectively navigate this non-traditional election cycle, it could prove to be a turning point of sorts for this historically underrepresented demographic.

Juneau spent most of her childhood on the Blackfeet Reservation in the isolated northern Montana town of Browning, which has been marked by unemployment and poverty despite its shared border with Glacier National Park. Her parents, educators themselves, understood the value of the electoral process and frequently registered and encouraged Native Americans to vote. By the time Juneau was in her twenties, her mother had won a seat in Montana’s Legislature.

Juneau attended Montana State University and earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University in 1994. She said her time at Harvard opened her to new people, cultures, and ways of navigating the world. But it also confirmed her love for the West’s wide-open landscapes, and after she earned her degree, she returned to start her teaching career.

After teaching for a few years in North Dakota and Montana, she accepted a position as the Indian Education Specialist at the Montana Office of Public Instruction to oversee the implementation of the Indian Education for All Act—a bill her mother sponsored that provided funding for educating Montana students about Native American culture. Unfortunately, the bill’s mandate wasn’t enforced, funding lagged, and she eventually left to attend law school.

But after a 2004 Supreme Court decision forced the state to fund the program, Juneau, who had been practicing law, returned to the Office of Public Instruction. “When you include Indian people it makes a huge difference,” she says. “When I see young people learning about each other and their history and their backgrounds and their way of life, a lot of barriers get broken down, and that’s where we can see each other as human beings and overcome a lot of challenges.”

The experience, too, taught her about the intersection of politics and policy, so when the superintendent seat opened up in 2008, she saw an opportunity to make a difference for Montana’s 140,000 K-12 students. Since she was elected, high school graduation rates have increased to record levels: 86 percent in 2015, with the dropout rate down to 3.4 percent, a 33 percent decline since 2009.

Her campaign for Congress, however, has forced her to broaden her focus. So far, her main issue has been the protection of public lands. Juneau is attempting to draw a sharp contrast with her opponent, first-term Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, who recently voted for a bill that would transfer management authority to states for as much as 4 million acres of national forest land.

But if her platform has been sparing, her campaign seems to be less focused on what she’s about than on who she is. In an overwhelmingly white state with seven Indian reservations (comprising roughly 9 percent of the state’s land mass) and which has not elected a woman to Congress since Jeannette Rankin’s second term nearly 75 years ago, Juneau embodies evolving attitudes and a new direction in a historically conservative state.

Until recently, Native Americans have participated in electoral politics at relatively low rates. Native Americans were not granted the right to vote until 1924, and since then a combination of local voting laws, disinterest, and geographical barriers have effectively discouraged Native Americans—especially those on reservations—from voting. Even in Glacier County, whose population is 65 percent Native American and includes the Blackfeet Reservation, only 45 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in 2014—10 percentage points below the state average. In 2012, Glacier County’s turnout was 12 percentage points below the rest of the state.

With low turnout among Native voters, elected officials have had less incentive to listen to the concerns of their Native constituents, which has naturally had the effect of further discouraging these communities from participating in the political process. “Traditionally, we [Native Americans] worry about state and federal elections about as much as state and federal candidates worry about tribal elections,” says Chase Iron Eyes, a Native American activist who is now running for North Dakota’s lone Congressional seat. And this has also been one of the reasons that Native American interests have often been ignored. “It’s important that we assert our voice. Otherwise we get left out,” he adds.

In 2012, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota won her first term to the U.S. Senate by less than one percentage point, and many analysts credited the Native American vote with her victory. For North Dakota and other states that were taking note, Heitkamp’s election highlighted the potential of engaging Indian communities across the state, creating an atmosphere in which North Dakota’s Democratic Party could nominate a non-traditional candidate like Iron Eyes, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Iron Eyes has little experience in mainstream politics, despite his leadership and activism in Native American communities since high school. He launched the website Last Real Indians, which provides Native American thought leaders a platform to express their views on a variety of issues, and helped raise nearly $1 million to purchase 437 acres of sacred land in the Black Hills. He also has served as counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, which works to maintain Lakota community and culture with a special focus on keeping children with their families and out of the foster care system. He believes that his candidacy is a sign of changing times. “It’s a signifier that we are evolving as a country and society,” he says.

In North Dakota, Native candidates are running for a variety of statewide and local offices, including the public service commission, insurance commission, and state Legislature. In Montana, if all 10 Native candidates win their races for the state Legislature, the percentage of the state’s Native American lawmakers will surpass the percentage of the state’s Native population, which stands at 6.5 percent.

Although voter turnout among Natives continues to lag behind other demographics, Iron Eyes is confident that his candidacy, along with that of other Native candidates, will drive more Native Americans to the polls this November. “We have a leadership legacy, and now we’re seeing a rebirth,” he says.

Georgene Louis, a member of the Acoma Pueblo, who has represented a largely Hispanic district in Albuquerque, New Mexico, since 2013, agrees. When asked if she sees herself as a Native American politician, she thinks for a minute before responding with a definitive “Yes.”

“It’s significant for kids to be able to see someone who looks like them and be able to identify and understand that this is something that’s important to our community,” she says.

In New Mexico, where the pueblos are fully enmeshed in the state’s mainstream culture, Native American issues are generally better recognized and understood, but Louis also believes there is much room for improvement. To her mind, because Native Americans are so underrepresented, they are uniquely equipped to benefit a broad cross-section of society. “There are so many challenges that we face, and if people are able to help with all of these issues, we’re also going to help others.”

Juneau wants Native Americans to assume a larger role in electoral politics. “Without them there, Indians would not have a voice, but when they are there, it changes the conversation,” she says. “They’re able to navigate the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats a lot because they bring up issues that aren’t commonly understood and make them clear.”

For Native Americans who pay more attention to tribal politics and elections, their connection to county, state, and federal governments can seem tenuous. Years of being oppressed and ignored by these institutions have caused many to focus on their own communities instead. But with a record number of Native American candidates running for federal office to serve as role models for the next generation, many in Indian Country have hope for what the future may bring.

Not surprisingly for Juneau, it’s all about education. “We have more educated Natives, probably more than any time in history, and they’re moving around a lot. They’re seeing that there’s more connections to be made and they want to be part of that,” she says.

From these experiences outside reservations, younger Natives can start to understand the positive role that state and federal governments can have in their lives, and that has produced a new sense of optimism. “It’s going to be an entirely different way of leading when we can all get along and understand each other a little bit better,” Juneau adds.

Her candidacy, along with that of Iron Eyes and the five other Native candidates running for Congress, holds the potential to realize the perceived changes taking place. If seven of the eight candidates win their respective elections, Native representation in the U.S. House would accurately reflect the country’s Indian population. Considering the same is not true for women or other minority groups, this achievement would be notable. These efforts signify an investment in a new generation of Native American leaders that has the energy and know-how to shape a more positive future, not only for Indian Country but for the entire nation.

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