TULSA, Okla. -- Kalyn Free lost her bid last year to become the first
Indian woman elected to Congress, but her dream of bringing more Native
candidates into American politics is just beginning.
Free, a Choctaw and a long-time active Democrat, has founded INDN's List,
an organization to recruit and train Indian candidates for state and local
office. The Tulsa-based group launched its first major event Oct. 13, a
weekend "Campaign Camp" at the Mystic Lake Casino in Minneapolis, featuring
leaders of the national Democratic Party.
Howard Dean, former presidential candidate and now chairman of the
Democratic National Committee, gave the keynote address, telling the group.
"You, as future candidates, future organizers, and future leaders hold the
key to the future of your communities."
Three Democratic congressmen, Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota, James
Oberstar of Minnesota and Mike Honda of California, provided campaign
advice. "You may be first in your community," said Honda, "but don't be the
Radio/television commentator and comedian Al Franken spoke at the closing
The event was originally planned for about 50 participants, said Free, but
three times that number signed up. A large number of tribal leaders and
council members attended, as well as potential candidates.
"This has been a dream of mine for more than a dozen years," she said.
Free had been working in Washington, D.C. as a lawyer in the Department of
Justice Indian Resources Section. She recalled talking with a friend at the
National Congress of American Indians about the need for a clearinghouse to
send help to Native candidates around the country.
Before long, however, Free was a candidate herself. She returned home to
southeastern Oklahoma and won election as district attorney for Pittsburg
and Haskell counties, the first Indian woman to serve in that office.
In 2004, she sought a step up. As Indian organizations put a supreme effort
into mobilizing the Native vote, she ran for the Democratic nomination for
the second congressional seat in eastern Oklahoma, opened when incumbent
Brad Carson ran for the U.S. Senate. She lost in the primary to David
Boren, son of a former U.S. senator and grandson of a New Deal-era
congressman from the district. Boren went on to win by a 2 -- 1 margin.
Free definitely didn't lose her taste for politics, however. During her
campaign, she received endorsements from 117 tribes and the feminist
fund-raising group Emily's List, and parlayed the experience into setting
up INDN's List. She introduced the new organization on Feb. 21 at the NCAI
The acronym stands for Indigenous Democratic Network. Free calls herself a
"dyed in-the-wool, yellow-dog Democrat," and she is working closely with
Democratic Party leaders. In fact, she told Indian Country Today, Dean
recently appointed her to the DNC.
Party loyalty hasn't kept her from criticizing Democrats' treatment of
Indians, however. The Washington Post quoted her in February as saying "I'm
sick of the DNC treating Indians like an ATM machine that has to be courted
every couple of years." Free, who doesn't disavow the quote, now adds: "The
Democratic Party wakes up six weeks before an election and says, 'We have
to get organized.'
"This has to be 24/7," she said. "We have to be planning for 2008, 2010,
2012. We have to be looking at people coming up the ladder, and grooming
For the 2006 elections, INDN's List will focus on state and local
elections. Free said it will be helping candidates for the state
legislatures of Montana, New Mexico and Arizona, and even a city council
In its mission statement, the list outlines a four-pronged strategy: "1)
recruiting Indian candidates, 2) training Indian candidates and Indian
staff, 3) funding Indian candidates and campaigns, and 4) mobilizing Indian
voters to help elect Democratic candidates up and down the ballot."
The four-day Campaign Camp outlined an intensive training program. Topics
ranged from developing a stump speech and opposition research to the basics
of fund-raising and maintaining voter lists. Speakers, in addition to Dean
and Franken, included Herseth, who owed her 2002 election to the Lakota
vote; and Frank LaMere, Winnebago, a member of the DNC.
Detailed training in several sessions fell to Peggy Flanagan, White Earth,
who is the director of community outreach for the Minnesota
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and a member of the Minneapolis School Board;
and Jill Sherman-Warne, California's Native American Heritage commissioner
and the Pechanga Tribe's director of environment.
Although presidential primary opponents raised questions about Dean's
record on Indian issues as governor of Vermont, he has given Free's project
"I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to and hear from American
Indian leaders," he said in announcing his appearance. "The Democratic
Party is committed to partnering with the Native American community to make
sure that our nation reflects the values we share.
"Together, if we show up, stand up for what we believe in and encourage
American Indian candidates, we can move our country forward."