WASHINGTON – After suffering big losses in the fall elections and with dwindling support from tribes, a first-of-its-kind Indian political action committee is shutting down.
Leaders of the Indigenous Democratic Network, known as INDN’s List, announced Dec. 21 that the group could no longer sustain itself.
“As we say goodbye to another year, we also say goodbye to INDN’s List,” Kalyn Free, founder and director of the organization, announced in a press release and via a blog post. “I am deeply saddened to tell you that INDN’s List is closing our doors.”
The group, billed as “a grassroots political organization devoted to recruiting and electing American Indian candidates and mobilizing the Indian vote throughout America on behalf of those candidates,” had been around since 2005.
There were major successes during its short existence, such as the election of Indian candidates – 63, according to Free – to several state legislature seats where Natives had never won before. Among the winners were female Indian candidates who broke glass ceilings, including Claudia Kauffman in Washington state, Denise Juneau in Montana, and Barbara McIlvaine Smith in Pennsylvania.
At the same time, the organization hosted training conferences for Indian politicians, helping them become increasingly savvy and earn greater approval from voters.
The group also had a strong presence at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where it highlighted Indian politicos to help their presence be known within the greater political scene. During the event, Free served as a superdelegate who cast her vote in favor of President Barack Obama, helping to improve Native American visibility to Democratic Party leaders. She was also outspoken against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., indicating her belief that he would not improve tribal communities as much as Obama.
Free is widely seen as the impetus behind the successes of INDN’s List. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she began a legal career working for the U.S. Department of Justice in the 1990s. In 1998, according to her biography, she ran for and became the first Native American woman ever to be elected a district attorney in Oklahoma, where she focused on women, children, and victim issues. In 2004, she ran for an open House seat, ultimately losing to Democratic Rep. Dan Boren.
Then Free put her personal career on hold to try to establish a greater political movement on behalf of Indian country as a whole, thus establishing INDN’s List after networking with leaders from other successful nationwide PACs, including Emily’s List.
One motto she lived by while directing the group: “Little Indian boys and girls cannot be what they cannot see.”
At times, some criticized Free for not choosing to support Indians of all political stripes, including conservatives, but she maintained that she helped support the strongest candidates that had a chance to win their particular races and could best improve outlooks for Indian country. And she never shied away from being called “liberal.”
In the months leading up to the November elections, Free let on to some confidantes that all was not merry regarding the organization’s financial structure. She also shared dissatisfaction in the lacking level of support many tribe’s had shown for the organization.
“The fact is, Indian country has to stand up and support a group like INDN’s List, so our candidates have even the slightest chance of winning and, frankly, Indian country has not done all that it could in this respect,” Free said soon after the elections, which saw many candidates supported by the organization lose their races.
On top of that concern, the group had found many tribes were willing to provide substantial contributions to non-Indian candidates.
In total, 15 Native candidates out of 27 endorsed by INDN’s List lost this year, including seven incumbents.
The losses were devastating to Free, who had dedicated so much of her own energy, time, and money to the project.
“It is a sad time for me and all of the dedicated staff who worked so hard on this for all these years,” she said.
Free said in the press release that the organization has been unable to expand its donor base “beyond a handful of visionary tribes, unions and individuals,” adding, “the tribes who supported us in our first four years just did not come through these last two years.”
In November, Free told Indian Country Today that if tribes want more Indian candidates elected, they need to be willing to provide donations – something she said was rare this year.
“Until tribes start supporting their own tribal members, then nothing is going to change. The effort and the focus should be on building and strengthening our own candidates.”
Despite the setbacks, Free’s hope for greater Indian inclusion in the American political world continues.
“My dream of seeing the first Indian woman in Congress, an Indian governor and ultimately an Indian president lives on. They are all out there, somewhere. And maybe, just maybe, INDN’s List has helped show them the way.”