A Record Number of Native Americans Are Running For Office in 2018

Graham Lee Brewer, High Country News

In 2016, Peggy Flanagan became the first Native American woman to address the Democratic National Convention. This year, she is running for lieutenant governor of Minnesota.

Patri­cia Roy­bal Caballero was a fresh­man law­mak­er in New Mexico’s House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives when she walked into a pop­u­lar San­ta Fe restau­rant in 2013 for a meet­ing with some of her col­leagues. Roy­bal Caballero, a com­mu­ni­ty and eco­nom­ic devel­op­er of Piro-Man­so-Tiwa ances­try, was by then used to deal­ing with neg­a­tive per­cep­tions about her race, but what hap­pened next astound­ed her.

Before I had a chance to ask for a table, the host­ess said, I am sor­ry, but we’re not tak­ing appli­ca­tions right now,’” Roy­bal Caballero told me recently. 

For that kind of encounter to hap­pen to a law­mak­er in the state cap­i­tal, in a city with so many peo­ple of col­or, was a reminder of the need for her to be a voice for mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple. Although there are 6.6 mil­lion Native Amer­i­cans and Alas­ka Natives in the coun­try, Roy­bal Caballero is one of only a few dozen Indige­nous state law­mak­ers. That’s a dis­crep­an­cy worth con­sid­er­ing as we head toward 2018 midterm elections.

If you look at our Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions in the state of New Mex­i­co, it is the voice of New Mex­i­co,” she says. We are what rep­re­sents the best and worst of his­to­ries of the state.”

For Roy­bal Caballero, racial mis­con­cep­tions and ignored his­to­ries don’t stop at local restau­rants. In a Decem­ber speech at a char­ter school con­fer­ence, the state’s edu­ca­tion sec­re­tary, Christo­pher Ruszkows­ki, said Amer­i­ca was built on free­dom, choice, com­pe­ti­tion, options, going West, Man­i­fest Des­tiny.” Man­i­fest Des­tiny is a thorny 19th-cen­tu­ry con­cept — a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the expan­sion of Amer­i­can colo­nial­ism that destroyed count­less Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and lives — but here it was again, being glorified.

It was one of those moments I refer to as an edu­ca­tion­al and teach­ing moment,” Roy­bal Caballero says, which I’m find­ing these days to be almost every moment, that we are sub­ject­ed to these kind of references.”

Patri­cia Roy­bal Caballero has rep­re­sent­ed Dis­trict 13 in New Mex­i­co’s House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives since 2013. (Image: hcn​.org)

Roy­bal Caballero says her mere phys­i­cal pres­ence can change the tone of a con­ver­sa­tion in the state­house, which in turn can change mis­con­cep­tions. That’s why the upcom­ing fed­er­al elec­tions have caught her atten­tion, as at least four women across the coun­try are hop­ing to become the first Indige­nous women elect­ed to Con­gress: Sharice Davids, Deb Halaand, Eve Reyes-Aguirre and Aman­da Dou­glas. Three more Indige­nous women are run­ning for gov­er­nor in Ida­ho, Hawaii and Minnesota.

Four in rela­tion to our pop­u­la­tion in this coun­try may not be seen as sig­nif­i­cant through the eyes of pow­er and author­i­ty, but through our eyes, we know that through our his­to­ry that just three or four of us can be resound­ing,” Roy­bal Caballero says. 

Native Amer­i­cans were not allowed to vote until 1924. It was only 40 years ago that Con­gress rec­og­nized the legal right of Indige­nous peo­ples to prac­tice their reli­gious beliefs. Need­less to say, Native com­mu­ni­ties have nev­er been prop­er­ly rep­re­sent­ed in Con­gress. That lega­cy of dis­en­fran­chise­ment con­tin­ues to this day, as Native Amer­i­cans across the coun­try face a vari­ety of chal­lenges access­ing the vot­ing booth and hav­ing their con­cerns met with action.

It isn’t just Indige­nous can­di­dates that make this year feel dif­fer­ent. In one part of the Nava­jo Nation, there is hope that redis­trict­ing can begin to reverse gen­er­a­tions of vot­ing dis­en­fran­chise­ment. In Alas­ka, efforts are being made to cre­ate vot­ing bal­lots in sev­er­al Indige­nous lan­guages.

This year seems organ­ic,” says Mark Tra­hant, edi­tor-in-chief of Indi­an Coun­try Today. Lots of folks who have decid­ed they must run — now.” Tra­hant has been track­ing Native polit­i­cal can­di­dates for years now, and he says the unprece­dent­ed num­ber of Indige­nous state and fed­er­al can­di­dates has caused him to cre­ate a new cat­e­go­ry in his data set for first-time candidates. 

Issues like the dra­mat­ic reduc­tion of Bears Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ment, a land sacred to Native peo­ples, many of whom suc­cess­ful­ly lob­bied to have it des­ig­nat­ed, have also gal­va­nized vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion efforts. It prob­a­bly didn’t hurt vot­ing efforts to have Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who backed the reduc­tion, hang a por­trait in the Oval Office of Pres­i­dent Andrew Jack­son, a man whose embrace of geno­cide led to the Trail of Tears. 

The voic­es of our peo­ple have always lacked a prop­er plat­form. We have long been mar­gin­al­ized. We have nev­er had a voice in Con­gress that reflects us as a peo­ple. As Roy­bal Caballero told me: Even his­tor­i­cal­ly, we have had to be our own orga­niz­ers. We’ve had to lean back on our own tra­di­tions. We’ve had to rely on those in order to strength­en our own pres­ence because we have not had anyone.”

Here’s hop­ing our voic­es become too loud to ignore. 


(“What the 2018 midterms could mean for Native vot­ing” was first pub­lished on High Coun­try News’ web­site on March 23 and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion. For more infor­ma­tion about HCN’s expand­ing cov­er­age of trib­al affairs across the West, click here.)

Gra­ham Lee Brew­er is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at High Coun­try News and a mem­ber of the Chero­kee Nation. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @grahambrewer.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue