Native Americans Take Power
The new wave of indigenous elected officials.
January 16 | February 2019 Issue
They went low—very low—and Sharice Davids went to Washington. After a congressional campaign marred by a local Republican official’s racist and mean-spirited Twitter threat to send the Ho-Chunk Nation tribal member back “to the reservation,” the good people of Kansas voted to send Davids to Congress instead. Davids, a Democrat, ousted a four-term Republican incumbent by campaigning on equality, including for LGBTQ Kansans like herself.
Davids, a professional mixed martial arts fighter and licensed lawyer, put it this way in a campaign ad that showed her working out and kicking a punching bag: “It’s 2018, and women, Native Americans, gay people, the unemployed and underemployed have to fight like hell just to survive. It’s clear Trump and the Republicans in Washington don’t give a damn about anyone like me or anyone who doesn’t think like them.”
Davids joins New Mexico’s Deb Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo, to become the first Native American women to serve in Congress in its 230-year history. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, famously met the two women shortly after their election and knelt in homage.
Both represent districts that are diverse racially, economically and socially, with white, black, Native American, Asian American and Latino people in rural communities, towns and cities. Davids’ district encompasses Kansas City, Kan., while Haaland’s centers on Albuquerque.
Davids and Haaland (who calls herself “a 35th-generation New Mexican”) credit their success to time-honored traditions, especially the strength of their mothers, grandmothers and other women forebears. They will join two current Native American congressmen, both Republicans from Oklahoma—Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee—to make up a record number of tribal citizens in Congress at one time.
At the state and local level, at least 58 Native officeholders were elected across the country in 2018, according to a tally by Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant. Most were Democrats and almost half were women. Many flipped red seats blue. The Montana legislature now has its highest-ever number of Native members, 11, all but one of whom are Democrats.
Peggy Flanagan (D) of the White Earth Nation became Minnesota’s lieutenant governor and the first Native woman elected to statewide office there. Oklahoma’s new governor is Cherokee tribal member Kevin Stitt (R), and Ajay Pittman (D), Seminole, won a seat in the state legislature. Debra Lekanoff (D), of Tlingit and Aleut heritage, took 67 percent of the vote to become the first Native woman elected to the Washington state house of representatives.
In South Dakota, Oglala Sioux tribal member Red Dawn Foster’s campaign for state senate caught former President Barack Obama’s attention. He endorsed her as someone who would make the country “stronger, fairer, safer and cleaner” and helped her win nearly 60 percent of her district’s vote. Foster and her fellow Democrats will be led by the South Dakota Senate’s first-ever Native minority leader, Rosebud Sioux tribal member Troy Heinert, chosen by his colleagues in November 2018.
“Natives are good candidates now because they represent grassroots notions,” says Oglala Sioux attorney Brett Lee Shelton, of the Native American Rights Fund in Denver. “When that plays well among non-Natives as well as Natives, it is speaking to the common-people sensibility in all of us. It’s in everyone’s interest that we fix healthcare, that we start schooling kids better.”
He describes Native people as “pleasantly surprised” by the positive media attention around their political successes. “But it’s not yet time for us to breathe a sigh of relief,” Shelton says.
As voters welcome Native legislators, they may be seeking antidotes for the troubles plaguing our increasingly unequal nation—an uncaring political system, job scarcity, the fear that a single health crisis will sink a family financially. We are also encouraged from the White House to hate, hurt and kill one another—from President Trump’s casual acceptance of the beatings and death in Charlottesville to his recent warning in a Reuters interview that “revolt” will occur should he be impeached.
Recalling our nation’s history of discrimination and hatred, Heinert describes those times, and these, as “not our best moments.” The district Heinert represents includes three Sioux reservations, and he worries about constituents’ personal safety, in addition to the continued health of the homelands they have tended for millennia. “The current national climate has spilled over into local communities,” he says. “[Some people think] it’s okay to hate someone because they’re different.”
Heinert is a pickup rider on the rodeo circuit, rescuing bull and bronco riders after they have been bucked off. Does he see himself, and other Native officeholders, as riding to the country’s rescue?
“I wouldn’t say that,” he responds. “I see it as bringing sanity to the process. Hatred is not a way to govern, to find common ground, to look out for all people.”
A Different Value System
Natives see themselves as patriots. They’re the demographic with the nation’s highest participation in military service. Yet profound differences separate some of their values from those of mainstream America. According to Shelton, many indigenous people don’t support the dominant society’s fiercely maintained system of racial and financial privilege.
“There are all sorts of symbols and things about status, many tied to money, that I honestly do not understand,” Shelton explains. He believes the success of Native candidates in 2018 may indicate that some Americans are losing their fascination with social climbing and preserving the ladder of privilege. He was delighted by Sharice Davids’ win.
“Something’s really up,” Shelton says. “She’s her own person. She knows how to make good stuff happen. Maybe big changes are coming.”
Many of the newly elected Native officials ran on strikingly similar platforms, with health- and community-focused planks. Shelton sees this as in keeping with the Native focus on interdependence, which has ensured a good life for millennia.
“I need a healthy you, just like you need a healthy me,” he says. “We take care of the kids, and they’ll take care of us when we get older, while inheriting what we built.”
“I don’t consider myself a politician but a voice for the people,” says newly elected North Dakota Democratic state Rep. Ruth Buffalo, of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, or Three Affiliated Tribes. While knocking on 6,500 doors in her urban-plus-rural Fargo district, she learned that health, education, jobs and fair taxes were major concerns.
Door-knocking led Buffalo to walk some 8 to 12 miles a day. She posted maps of the treks on social media and found it to be a fun way to engage with voters. They told her that they saw various designs in the routes and suggested that posters be made of them.
Buffalo had enthusiastic Native assistance in her campaign, including a young Native mom who worked on daily operations and a Native filmmaker who made videos of her speaking and campaigning. But the campaign also reflected Fargo’s growing diversity. She was at times accompanied on her door-knocking by women who were South-Sudanese, trans or disabled, for example.
When faced with criticism on the campaign trail, Buffalo responded “diplomatically,” she says. “By default, we Native legislators often have to be educators, because so little is known about Native history. It has been brushed under the rug.”
“I grew up in a rural tribal community, and our values are not that different from rural North Dakota values,” Buffalo says. “We have rich cultural differences in this state, but also similarities. We’re all human beings. We want a better future for our children and grandchildren, seven generations forward, including those we’re not going to meet physically on this earth.” Her platform turned a red seat blue, as Davids’ did in Kansas.
Haaland came to her race familiar with both politics and caring for others. She was a Democratic Party volunteer for 20 years, including chairing the New Mexico state party from 2015 to 2017. She worked as a tribal administrator and as head of a social service agency for mentally disabled adults.
At times, she also struggled. “I know what it’s like to be on food stamps and to piece together healthcare for my daughter and me,” she tells In These Times. “I had a lot of experiences that could help my district.”
Amplified Native voices can offer better understanding of not just major issues but the fine print of government programs, says Wizipan Little Elk, CEO of the Rosebud [Sioux] Economic Development Corporation. Haaland and Davids “know what poverty really looks like,” he says. “They will be able to tell us whether certain federal programs actually address needs or must be adjusted to work.”
Impeachment is not top of mind for Haaland, who wants to wait for the conclusion of the Mueller investigation before deciding what to do next. “Trump’s not everything,” she says. “Every day, Americans go hungry or can’t get healthcare. Not to mention those who are homeless, or veterans who aren’t getting the help they need. We have to fight on behalf of all the people in this country.”
Haaland supports Medicare for All and also wants more investigations into this country’s numerous murdered and missing indigenous women, whose cases are often ignored by law enforcement. Buffalo agrees, and will look for ways her state of North Dakota can help. Both say the issue concerns all women.
Says Haaland, “The more people we have in office who can relate to things that happen every day to Americans, the better off we’ll be.”
Being caretakers of the environment has a multi-thousand-year history for indigenous Americans. Journalist Charles C. Mann writes in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus that colonists described the American landscape as looking like the highly designed English parks they’d known back home, never realizing they’d hit on the truth: The great eastern forest where early migrants landed was no wilderness, but a carefully tended “ecological kaleidoscope” of garden plots, berry patches and healthy forests with spaciously placed trees. Rather than domesticate animals, indigenous people retooled ecosystems to encourage game animals, selectively burning vegetation to increase the grasslands for buffalo and deer, writes Mann.
The new Native officeholders virtually unanimously support protection of the environment. Tribes and their allies, including farmers, ranchers and environmental and social-justice advocates, bitterly oppose the numerous existing and proposed pipelines for carrying Canadian tar-sands oil and fracked oil and gas across U.S. land and water. Environmental harms fall heavily on vulnerable and isolated communities such as theirs. This causes social and human-rights problems that may be less visible in wider society.
A striking example of this was the decision by the North Dakota Public Service Commission and the Dakota Access company to move an oil pipeline from upstream of Bismarck to just upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux and thousands of others demonstrated to stop the pipeline’s construction, facing down rubber bullets, tear gas and fire hosings in below-freezing temperatures.
Fearing similar protests in South Dakota, where tribes oppose the Keystone Access pipeline, GOP leaders passed a 2017 protest-suppression law that lets the governor restrict gatherings to 20 people, among other measures. Troy Heinert, a longtime opponent of the Keystone pipeline, led the Senate opposition to the bill.
“I’m not happy with the way South Dakota bent over backward to welcome this foreign company [TransCanada, headquartered in Calgary],” Heinert says. “South Dakota has no plan if the Keystone Pipeline were to break and oil were to get into the Missouri River or Ogallala Aquifer, which provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands in the state, as well as to our livestock, agriculture, recreation and tourism industries.”
As minority leader, Heinert plans to raise tribes’ treaty rights as part of the continued effort to stop Keystone construction. The pipeline project was stalled in court at press time.
In Utah, Bears Ears National Monument is on the chopping block. The San Juan County Commission has been a big proponent of the Bears Ears giveaway, which apparently inspired the commission’s pre-election attempt to declare Navajo Nation tribal member Willie Grayeyes a non-resident of the county, thus ineligible to run for an influential commission seat in 2018.
Grayeyes is chair of the Native-led group that worked to establish the monument, with its magnificent landscape and deep cultural significance. A Utah federal court ultimately rebuked the county commission and its failed endeavor, while the Salt Lake City Tribune published a call for criminal charges against the county officials.
Grayeyes, a Democrat, is yet another Native legislator who won a formerly Republican seat. He is both vigorously determined to protect Bears Ears and, as Ruth Buffalo says is typical of Native legislators, a diplomat. When his court case was at its height, he released a public statement stressing goodwill: “I hope to focus on healing and cooperation, rather than fighting.”
Bears Ears is another instance where Native concerns coincide with everyone else’s. “Bears Ears was collapsed into a Native-versus-Trump issue,” says Shelton. “It’s not. So much of Utah’s economy is built around it being a great outdoor place.”
By bringing Native voices to the federal level, Haaland (who visited the Standing Rock camp and has criticized the Trump administration’s land grabs) and Davids may find themselves positioned to protect that land. The Trump administration has repeatedly alarmed tribes over the last two years by belittling their status as sovereign nations with which the federal government has long-standing treaty obligations enshrined in the Constitution. Just weeks after the 2016 election, the incoming administration floated the unspecified notion of “privatizing” Native energy resources. A tribal outcry sank the idea.
Tribal stances on the environment encompass not only preventing local disasters—such as pipeline leaks, water pollution or the disproportionate warming experienced in the Arctic—but also mitigating climate change more broadly.
Haaland campaigned on bold climate action. She supports a national transition to 100 percent renewable energy, which she expects will create tens of thousands of solar energy jobs for her state. “We need education for those who want to move from the fossil-fuel industry to the renewable-energy industry, who want to learn to build wind turbines, install solar panels or build big solar fields,” she says. She was among the first to endorse the Green New Deal of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Dependence on finite and scarce resources—like oil—hurts workers, the middle class and our economy by continuing to drive profits to the few,” Haaland wrote in a 2017 article. Citing the Pueblo people’s history as agriculturalists who value harmony with the land, she vowed, “I will fight the notion that our earth is simply a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.”
The Right To Vote
The enthusiastic participation of Native voters in 2018 was as significant as the surge of Native elected officials. Though 2018 election data by ethnicity was not yet out at press time, there were reports of high turnout on reservations.
If the Democratic Party wants to stay relevant in these changing times, it needs to listen to Native voices, says OJ Semans. He and his wife, Barb, codirect Four Directions, a voting-rights group headquartered in South Dakota on the Rosebud Sioux reservation. Both are tribal members.
“Yes, we Native American Indians are mostly Democrats, in some areas nearly exclusively so, but that’s not the point,” he says. “We want the political parties to interact with tribal members. Tell us what you’re about and what you’re going to do. Let us decide.”
Overwhelming support in Indian country tipped Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester to re-election in a Trump state. Semans says Tester earned that support with field offices on reservations: “He talked to us. The critical issue for us is not the party, but equality: the equal right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.”
Native Americans have been U.S. citizens for less than a century—since the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924—and couldn’t vote in some states for decades longer, explains University of Utah political science professor Daniel McCool in Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act and the Right to Vote. “To achieve that, Indians would have to overcome a panoply of state laws, constitutional clauses and court decisions that blocked the way.”
Americans have periodically stepped up to expand and protect voting rights, with the civil-rights marches of the 1960s and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example. For Native people, scores of federal lawsuits since the 1960s—notably by the Native American Rights Fund, Four Directions and the American Civil Liberties Union—have won them better ballot-box access. There have been steps backward, though, as when a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby v. Holder, eliminated a key protection for voters. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the decision swept away Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which had required federal approval of changes in voting procedures in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination.
In 2018, North Dakota took another big step backward. The nation was agog at the conservative state’s last-ditch attempt to keep typically Democratic Native Americans from the polls. When North Dakota required that voting IDs have detailed street-address information that is usually not available for reservation residences, tribes and advocacy groups (including Four Directions) scrambled to put the data in place. The suppression effort ended up energizing the Native vote and driving turnout; on the Standing Rock reservation, for example, turnout doubled from the last midterm election.
Semans sees the ID laws as “overt” vote suppression, but also sees “covert” suppression in poll workers giving misinformation. In the 2018 midterms, one Four Directions volunteer witnessed a county official refuse to accept a Native voter’s in-person absentee ballot, telling them they had to go home and mail it (which was untrue). On another day, Semans personally witnessed a poll worker tell a Native voter that a document was invalid because it had been signed in black ink, rather than blue. That, too, was untrue; black ink is valid. “To cast a ballot in North Dakota, Native voters had to know the details of voting-rights law backwards and forwards,” Semans says.
John Arnold, North Dakota’s state elections director, claims that the new ID requirements were not intended to discriminate. Problems should be taken up with the counties where they occurred, he says, where local officials should have “had the sense to know” correct procedures.
Semans disagrees. “State and local election officials took an oath to administer fair and democratic elections,” he says. “They’re not. The bar has to be raised.”
He believes election officials closest to the voting process—county workers across the country who decide where the voting offices will be, who staffs them, their hours and much more—are where the power lies. It’s where the proponents of the racial and financial privilege that Shelton describes are fighting their last-ditch battles against Native and other minority voters.
In an important development, Crow Creek tribal resident Yvette Isburg garnered 56 percent of the vote to become head elections official in Buffalo County, S.D., which had a history of extreme gerrymandering. Some 14 years ago, the county settled a federal lawsuit that found it packed 1,500-plus Crow Creek Sioux Tribe members into one county-commission district, while 100-plus and 300-plus mostly non-Native residents made up the other two districts. The districts were evened up, and now a Native woman will be sworn in March 4 to the influential role of ensuring fair and equal elections. She will monitor the point at which voters register, vote and otherwise interact personally with the nation’s election system.
Four Directions is already working toward 2020. The group is looking outside North Dakota, talking to tribes in Arizona and in other swing states. “Navajo has a total of some 115,000 voting-age citizens across three states, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah—with 70,000 in Arizona alone,” Semans says. “We are opening the doors for them.” The organization aims to establish 15 early-voting offices on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where there were only three in 2016.
In Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Native voters—if they get to the polls—can affect the presidential contest, Semans says. “We are looking at Denver,” he adds, “doing field surveys and seeing how we can make a difference for its urban-Indian population. North Carolina has 60,000 Lumbees. We are talking to them.” The Democratic Party may well benefit from the increased Native voter turnout, he says, but for tribal people it will likely mean more Native officeholders in federal, state and local seats.
Voting is critically important for Native people, says Heinert. “Voting is how we exercise our sovereignty. We are here, we are part of the process. We’ve been an afterthought, and that’s not the case anymore.”
is an award-winning journalist who has reported investigative articles for In These Times. Her new book is American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self-Determination and Inclusion.
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