The historic elections of Rep. Deb Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids as the first Native women elected to Congress has greatly improved the political landscape at the federal level. Many of our tribal leaders and members now have a place to go in DC where elected officials will be responsive to our issues. This was always the case when I served in the South Dakota Legislature, meeting with tribal members, tribal leadership, and tribal organizations from not just my own legislative district, but from all over the state—I was always available to leaders and members from our state’s nine tribes.
Haaland and Davids made history and became household names in 2018, but they are only two of dozens of Native candidates who won seats that year. Do you know the names of any other Native leaders who won elections?
Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan
In Minnesota, longtime friend and recently elected Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe) has been an amazing leader since we first met in 2006. At the time she was the youngest member of the Minneapolis School Board, just 25 years old. After serving on the school board, she served as the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund, where she helped lead a coalition to raise the minimum wage in the state.
Flanagan stepped back into public service in the Minnesota state House of Representatives for four years. In 2018, Congressman Tim Walz ran for governor and asked Flanagan to serve as his running mate.
The victorious ticket made Flanagan the highest-ranking Native American government official in the country and the only Native American woman to hold the office of lieutenant governor. This past legislative session under her leadership, Flanagan helped direct over $25 million dollars to Native Nations in Minnesota—a rarity for any state to allocate new resources to Native Nations outside of New Mexico and Washington. (I’m working on a Prism podcast that will further follow up on her first year as Lt. Governor, so stay tuned for a treat—not only is she effective, but has a delightful sense of humor.)
South Dakota Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert
The re-election of my good kola (friend) Troy Heinert as South Dakota’s Senate minority leader makes him the highest-ranking enrolled tribal member (Rosebud) to hold a leadership position within the Democratic Party in the state. Working with community language advocates from across the state, he was able to pass Senate Bill 126, formally recognizing both Lakota and Dakota as official languages in South Dakota.
North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo
Up in North Dakota, Fargo Rep. Ruth Buffalo, the first Native woman ever elected in the state, successfully passed six of her seven bills with bipartisan support, despite serving in the minority. Her victories have included increased coordination between law enforcement agencies working cases of missing and murdered indigenous women (#MMIW)—an ongoing issue affecting rural Native communities in epidemic numbers. Legislation was introduced in several states, and even the White House issued a statement in support of the issue.
Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy
In San Juan County, Utah, a recent court decision breaking up the gerrymandered district helped local majority Navajos elect two of their own, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, to the county commission. This race highlights the ongoing tension of minority-majority Native districts in rural America, in which white minorities use undemocratic institutional roadblocks to try and hold on to power. Because of their election, Grayeyes and Maryboy were able to move, for the first time in history, meetings to the Navajo reservation from the county seat located 71 miles away.
Every elected official identifying as Native had to overcome significant hurdles either in running for elected office or while serving. It is still so rare to see Native people in elected office that I often hear Native people outside of South Dakota marvel that someone with my last name would ever have a chance of being elected.
Even with these gains, achieving true equity in proportion of representation with regard to the population size of Native Americans in the U.S. would mean 2%, or 821 elected officials. Having 692 additional Native elected leaders would constitute a 667% increase over the number of current AIAN elected officials and elevate our voices at the local, state, and federal levels. This won’t happen overnight, but we have some great community groups leading the fight to make these changes.
Looking forward to 2020, there will be even more opportunities to elect Native Americans to all levels of government. Thanks to the work of our community organizations such as California Native Vote Project, NM Native Vote, Utah Dine Bikeyah, Native Voices Network, Native Peoples Action, Four Directions, 7genleaders, and other groups, we will have the ability to make our story and involvement in the political process even more historic.