Indigenous And In Office

By Across America producer James Morrison

Left: Sharice Davids, courtesy of her office | Right: Peggy Flanagan, courtesy of Christine Nguyen/MPR News

By many accounts, 2018 was the year of the Native American woman.

Voters elected 28 Indigenous women into office in the midterm elections, ranging from state legislatures to Congress. They comprise over half of the 58 seats won by tribal citizens in 2018.

Sharice Davids (D-KS), a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Deb Haaland (D-NM), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, became the first two Native American women elected to Congress. And Minnesotans elected Peggy Flanagan (D), a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, as their lieutenant governor — making her the highest-ranking Native woman in a state executive position ever elected.

Native Americans have had voting rights in federal elections for nearly a century. And while candidates made strides in the midterms, tribal representation in governing bodies is still vastly disproportionate to its population. There are currently four Native Americans in Congress, representing less than one percent of the elected body’s total makeup. That percentage is even lower for Indigenous women, who are just now being elected to office.

We recently spoke with Rep. Davids, Lt. Gov. Flanagan and Mark Trahant of Indian Country Today about why it’s taken Native American women so long to get elected to Congress, and what they’re doing with their newfound roles.

In large part, Trahant blames the lack of tribal representation on the structure of our democracy.

“We are only one of three countries in the world that still has a winner-take-all electoral system,” Trahant told us. “If we had a proportional system, [Natives] would have eight House representatives and a member in the U.S. Senate.”

Here’s what we learned from our guests:

Many Americans don’t realize Native Americans “exist as contemporary people.”

“There are too many people in Minnesota who don’t even know that Native American people exist as contemporary people,” Lt. Gov. Flanagan says.

There are more than five million Native Americans and Alaska Natives living in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than half of the Native population lives outside of reservations. The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe with more than 350,000 registered citizens — more than the population of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands combined.

Lt. Gov. Flanagan takes the oath of office at the Fitzgerald Theater in Jan. 2019. Credit: Evan Frost/MPR News

“Native women are at best invisible, and at worst, disposable.”

On some reservations, the murder rate of women is over 10 times the national average, according to the Justice Department. Since taking office, Rep. Davids, Rep. Haaland and Lt. Gov. Flanagan have worked to pass legislation or otherwise address an epidemic of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous women.

The Dakota Access Pipeline motivated Native voters in 2018.

Protests on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation were a huge motivator for Native Americans to turn up to the polls and run for office, according to Trahant. It even helped spark the political careers of non-Natives, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Native Americans sway elections (when they turn out to vote).

Indigenous voters may not sway presidential elections, but they have a big impact on federal elections in certain states. “In 2016, Native Americans didn’t show up to vote in Montana and Trump swept the state,” Trahant told us. “In 2018, Natives showed up to vote and won seats in the Montana legislature.”

New Mexico, Alaska and Oklahoma also have large populations of Native voters who often swing races. In 2018, Oklahomans elected Kevin Stitt of the Cherokee Nation ⁠ — the first-ever Native governor in the U.S. He’s a Republican endorsed by President Trump.

But they still face obstacles to vote.

“Inadequate translation services, restrictive election laws, voter purges and unequal internet access” are a few of the obstacles tribal citizens face when they go to cast ballots, according to Trahant. North Dakota’s Republican-led legislature enacted a law prior to the 2018 election that required voters to have a physical street address on their identification in order to vote. Critics pointed out that many tribal citizens who live on reservations don’t have physical addresses and rely on P.O. boxes.

Political success begets political success.

When former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer took office in 2005, he made an effort to appoint Native Americans across the state government. Montana is now the only state with a proportion of legislators representative of the Native population. There are nine Native Americans in the Montana legislature representing seven percent of the state population who identifies as tribal citizens.

2018 was a banner year for female candidates in general. That inspired more women to seek office.

“[Female] role models in the political sector are few and far between,” New Hampshire State Rep. Nicole Klein Knight (D) told us. She was inspired to run for office by other women who ran in 2018.

Have ideas for other shows about Indigenous populations? Tell us here.

1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.

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1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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