What kind of year is this for Native American candidates running for elected offices across the country? Once again there is a great answer found in Montana: There are 17 Native American candidates running for the Montana House and Senate. Seventeen! If elected, that would total more than 11 percent of the legislature.
Montana has the numbers -- did I report, seventeen? -- but the same enthusiasm is surfacing across the country. The Trahant Reports #NativeVote18 spreadsheets show a dozen candidates running for Congress; half a dozen campaigning for statewide office; and at least 75 running for state legislatures. I haven’t yet collected data for candidates for city and county offices but there is anecdotal evidence that the same trend is present. (I have more to report on candidates for Congress and statewide races soon.)
Several patterns are emerging from the data about candidates for state legislatures.
One. There are more Native Americans running in urban districts.
Much of the success of Native candidates in recent years has been, in part, in states where there is a fair redistricting process. So in Montana there is a certainty about representation from reservation communities. But this is the next level. Candidates like Jade Bahr, Northern Cheyenne, who’s running in Billings. She’s a Democrat, says “We've got quite the race for HD 50 in our hands. I've got a primary opponent, a Republican opponent and a Libertarian to run against in the upcoming elections,” Bahr posted on Facebook. “Time to raise some money and knock doors. A vote is your voice. Stand with me and get us progressives in office.”
Another urban candidate is Ruth Buffalo in Fargo, North Dakota. Buffalo, the Insurance Commissioner, was the party’s nominee two years ago for a statewide office, and she has remained active in Democratic NonPartisan League politics. Buffalo is a Mandan Hidatsa Arikara tribal citizen. She would be the only Native woman in the legislature.
Chris Roberts, Choctaw, was the mayor of Shoreline, Washington, and a member of the city council. He’s now running for the state legislature from that district. He wrote on Facebook: “I have decided to run for 32nd District State Representative, Position 2, because we should not live in a society where my son has nightmares about someone with a gun coming to his school. I am running because my neighbor should not be scared in public because of the color of her skin. I am running to roll up my sleeves and solve our state’s problems, from improving customer service with the Department of Social and Health Services to improving the graduation rates of urban Indians. I want to make sure that no-one goes bankrupt because they saw the doctor and that seven generations from now, they will tell stories about how we protected our Salish Sea.”
Debbie Nez-Manuel, Navajo, is a Democratic candidate for the Arizona state Senate from Mesa. “We are getting there, one door at a time. The door-to-door experience has taught me so much more about our district,” she posted on Facebook. “The students, the professionals, the elders -- everyone here is living life and working hard. Some describe their dreams for education, some are lonely, some are thankful because they just landed a job, some are dealing with chronic health conditions, while others are simply happy that I took a moment to sit and listen.”
Two. There are more candidates than ever who are new to politics, more than a third of the #NativeVote18 candidates are running for their first office.
Keaton Sunchild, Chippewa Cree, is a student at Great Falls High School and a candidate for the Montana House as a Democrat. He told the Great Falls Tribune: “Kids have the ability to change the world … we need young leaders and newer ideas.”
Allison Renville, Hunkpapa Lakota, is running as a Democrat for the South Dakota Senate as a Bernie-style progressive. She wrote on Facebook. “I love my community, I’ve journeyed far and across the country but my spirit is here in District 1, South Dakota. Because of this love, and a memory I still have of what an interdependent rural lifestyle feels like.” She’s asking for donations of $27 to make that happen. “I could use your help. With your donation of $27 I can build my website, buy signs and even attend candidate trainings; becoming better equipped for my run at the South Dakota State Senate. I recognize the power of collectively getting behind a cause we all support, and just like so many others I hope to follow in the footsteps of Senator Sanders.”
Three. There is a Democratic wave. But also a growth in Green Party and independent candidates.
A whopping 85 percent of the candidates on the #NativeVote18 list are Democrats. Nine Republicans. And 2 Greens. If you include statewide offices and Congress the growth of third-party candidates seeking election representing Indian Country is remarkable.
Aaron Camacho, Prairie Band of Potawatomi, is a candidate for the Wisconsin Senate. “I firmly think that it is necessary to loosen the grip of the perceived two party system in order allow our citizens access to equitable choices in representation,” she writes on her website. “Doing so requires our votes go toward candidates who will stand for the People. Often candidates must overcome socioeconomic disadvantages, often succumbing to cooperate influence through gifts and monetary donations. We need to address issues with money in politics that stifle our citizen’s calls for informed decisions in reaching sustainable outcomes and beyond. We need to take the Power of the People back and place it in the hands of the ordinary citizen.”
Most of the Republicans on this list do not spend a lot of time on Indian Country issues. In fact some do not even mention their tribal citizenship. However Brian Terry is a physician and in the Tennessee House. He is Choctaw and said early medical issues as a child shaped his thinking. “Knowing the struggles his parents had dealing with his medical problems, Bryan took personal responsibility to heart and earned his way through medical school in order not only to help himself, but others,” his campaign website said.
Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, Navajo, represents the Navajo Nation in the New Mexico Legislature. She’s the rare Republican and has run for tribal chairman as well as the state House. She’s co-chair of the Native Americans for Trump and cites energy independence as her opposition to “ever increasing regulations” as her reasons. The NM 4th District is more than 70 percent Navajo voters.
State legislatures are important, and the representation by Native Americans is a success story that’s often gone unreported. At nearly 1 percent nationwide, the Native American rate of representation in state legislatures still trails that of the nation’s overall population of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. But it’s also more than half of the 1.7 percent that make up the Native American population in the United States.
And in several states Native American legislators are in leadership, a seat at the table on every major issue that comes before that body.
Washington Sen. John McCoy, Tulalip, is the Democratic Party’s caucus chair. This year he successfully sponsored legislation to improve the teaching of Native American history in schools. “If we have any hope to bring peace to our increasingly polarized country, we must focus on teaching our children a fact-driven, accurate narrative of our collective history,” said McCoy. “Understanding tribal treaty rights and the history of our 29 federally recognized indigenous sovereign nations is crucial to understanding the past and present of our great state. There have been many great tribal leaders, like Billy Frank Jr., whose legacy deserves to be taught in our schools. It is also important that students are learning about some of the hard realities – how thousands of Native American children were separated from their families and ‘assimilated’ at government or religious boarding schools run by white missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
In Alaska, Native leaders are at both sides of the table. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, Yup’ik, has said his Native background defines how he views the world. He told the Bristol Bay Times: “I know it’s not only my children and maybe their children’s future, but it’s also the future of our way of life out here in rural Alaska and a lot of our Native villages.” The House Minority Leader is Charisse Millett, Inupiaq. In a previous legislature, Millett was instrumental in legislating Alaska Native languages as official state languages.
Four. One challenge that remains are in states without any Native American representation.
There are no tribal citizens in the Nevada legislature. Two candidates are running to be the first in California: James Ramos, San Manuel, and Caleen Sisk, Winnemem Wintu. Both are Democrats. And Idaho Rep. Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, is a candidate for governor and resigned her seat in the legislature.
Mary Sue Femath, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, is running in El Paso, Texas, for a House seat. “El Paso has had many firsts in Texas history – A non-discrimination ordinance, the first basketball team to start five African-American players in a national championship and the first ever county ethics commission,” her campaign website says. “Let’s make history one more time and elect Texas’ first Native American to the Texas House of Representatives.”
Native candidates are, of course, breaking barriers. Some of that occurs because of the power of story, letting voters know what’s at stake in any election. But it’s a because of successful efforts to have districts that represent tribal communities.
Former Montana Sen. Carol Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, said it’s critical to get more American Indians to serve on state commissions that actually draw legislative boundaries in order to improve representation.
Montana has “six Indian majority House districts and three Indian majority Senate districts meaning that with elections and the populations and the geographical boundaries, those Indian people or the people within that district have the option of electing somebody they choose. It doesn't say they have to be Indian. It just says they have an opportunity to elect people within that district,” Juneau said. “That was a long process, court cases, the redistricting process. Those are steps that every state could take that does that and gain power. Those are those building blocks to political power.”
Building blocks, yes. And did I mention, Montana has seventeen candidates? Fifteen Democrats, 1 Republican, and 1 Green Party candidate. Powerful building blocks.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter Follow @TrahantReports