TRAHANT REPORTS—Former Montana State Sen. Carol Juneau once said that she considered state office because that’s where she could make a difference. (She is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Tribe but was living in the Blackfeet Nation). The year was 1998. She was first appointed to the legislature to replace a man who left office to take up a seat on the Blackfeet Tribal Council and then she became one of two Native American members of the Montana House of Representatives. In February of 1999 she made the case to the House Democratic Caucus that Montana’s American Indians ought to have better representation, because tribal people “are citizens of the state of Montana, the same as any other citizens. I’d like to see that Indian people and Indian tribes in Montana aren’t left outside of everything.”
Today Native Montanans are not left out.
The state has the most Native Americans elected as legislators in the country, three members of the Senate and six members of the House. More than that: Montana has elected more women than any other state: Four of the nine legislators.
And though she is not currently in office, Denise Juneau (Carol’s daughter) was the only Native American woman to ever win a state constitutional office, she served two terms as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as well as a congressional candidate.
The Montana story has a national application, too. Native women politicians serve a higher percentage in state legislatures than do women nationally.
Women make up about 25 percent of state legislatures. But a little more than 40 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native legislators are female. The numbers break down this way: There are at least 67 Native American legislators out of 7,383 seats in 50 states or nearly one percent. (If you think that’s bad: Congress only has Native representation pegged at one-third of one percent.) Of those 67 seats, at least 25 of them are held by Native women politicians. So another way to look at the data: There are 1,800 legislative seats held by women; that works out to a Native representation of 1.4 percent.
There is still a long way to go to reach parity with the population, but it’s much better than just about any other category in the body politic. For example: A recent report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows more than 570 elected tribal leaders and, in that group, just under 25 percent are Native women politicians.
The Native delegation in Minnesota is 80 percent female; its own caucus. (You could even argue that women are 100 percent of the delegation because the other tribal member in the legislature, Republican Rep. Steve Green, is White Earth Ojibwe, but he rarely champions or mentions tribal issues.)
A recent article in the Minnesota Post was headlined, Something new for the Minnesota Legislature: A caucus of first Minnesotans. Rep. Susan Allen, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was first elected in a special election. “Before Allen was elected in 2012, only nine legislators in state history who self-identified as American Indian served in the Legislature — all men — and most of them were elected back when Minnesota was still considered a territory,” the Post said.
Allen told the Post: “You can be a part of an institution that is predominantly white and not have to lose your identity. I can be here without having to lose my identity to do it, and previous generations, I don’t think they had that.”
The Post explained several reasons why it’s so important for a legislature to hear from Native American legislators and for those elected representatives to keep an eye out for bills that impact the Native community.
One anecdote in particular was powerful. The Post said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Poden, a Standing Rock descendent, was giving American Indian students a tour of the Capitol. She could see they were overwhelmed. “I said, come back again and again and bring other Natives to the Capitol so that you’re not nervous, so that you’re not intimidated, so that some day you’ll be sitting in this office doing the work that we’re doing,” she said in the Post. “You could almost see the light bulb go off in their head: I could do this?”
Arizona is another state where most of the Native delegation—three out of four—are Native women politicians. This fits Arizona. Its legislature is third in the nation for the highest percentage of women at nearly 40 percent.
New Mexico is the only state where the male-female balance is 50/50. And five states, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, have only a woman representing Native Americans in the legislature. Conversely, Colorado, North Carolina, and North Dakota have only one Native American man serving in the legislature. Alaska (88 percent) and Oklahoma (86 percent) are primarily represented by men. South Dakota has three American Indian men in the legislature and no women.
Idaho’s Rep. Paulette Jordan, Couer d’Alene, is not only the only Native American in the legislature, she’s the only Democrat elected north of Boise. She told the Spokane Spokesman Review: “How can we continue to fight for balance in the state, with the overwhelming odds? That’s part of the beauty of our connection to our ancestors. We know that they’re always walking with us, guiding us and helping us in this lifetime … the fact that we’re still here – we still have the beauty, the inner identity, our connection to everything, to the land, to the earth itself, to our relatives both tribal and non-tribal alike.”
Nearly all of the Native American women who serve in state legislatures are Democrats. 21 out of 25. But it’s also worth mentioning that two of those Republican women are in leadership in Alaska and Hawaii. (Previously: Native Republicans open up a channel for discourse about Indian Country’s issues.)
But this much is clear: Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, currently represents more citizens than any Native woman in America (more than 90,000 people live in her North Seattle district). She was elected to Seattle’s City Council in November of 2015. In an interview with the Tacoma Art Museum she talked about her idea about the role of women: “While men were in charge of external power, women had interior, spiritual, and domestic power. They were the centers of the community.” That’s exactly how she’s approached her job on the council. She’s argued for community services from sidewalks to child care. On Juarez’ blog she reports: “In this budget I advocated for and secured $4.4 million in targeted investments in our community including improvements in human services, construction of sidewalks, and neighborhood planning initiatives. Ultimately, I achieved a 94 percent success rate for my specific District 5 budget priorities.”
Denise Juneau, of course, is the only Native American woman to hold statewide office (twice). She actually earned thousands of more votes from Montanans than did Barack Obama in 2012. (Previously: Denise Juneau’s eight years of promise.) She had a remarkable run even though last year fell short of being the first Native woman to ever win a seat in Congress.
In addition to Juneau, at least seven Native American women have run for Congress starting in 1988. Jeanne Givens, a Couer d’Alene tribal member in Idaho was the first. Then Ada Deer, Menominee, in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free, Choctaw, in Oklahoma, and Diane Benson, Tlingit, in Alaska, Three Native women have run in Arizona: Mary Kim Titla, White Mountain Apache, Arizona Rep. Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Victoria Steele, Seneca.
It’s so long past the time to erase that phrase, “ever” or for that matter, “the first” when it comes to Native women in office. And I suspect the 2018 elections will be a remarkable opportunity for more Native Americans to win office. It will be a referendum on President Donald J. Trump and his policies.
It’s also worth noting that Native American women have run for the vice presidency three times.
LaDonna Harris, Comanche, was on the ticket with Barry Commoner for the Citizen Party in 1980 (the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide). This was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders. The party highlighted the structural limits of the Democratic Party and blamed corporate America for the excess. The antidote was people power.
What’s interesting about the campaign now is that Commoner and Harris focused on environmental issues (long before the words global warming or climate change were in public discourse). Get this: The Citizens Party platform cited the role of science in managing complex environmental challenges.
“As a Comanche woman fighter, I’m proud to be a part of this party,” Harris said. “The traditions of my people have always held to the unity of the oppressed. That is why I want to show that we care about the problems of Chicanos, the Blacks, women, the elderly and the poor.”
Winona LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe, joined Ralph Nader on the Green Party Ticket in 2000 and again in 2004. When LaDuke announced her candidacy she was asked whether a Native woman from rural Minnesota should even be considered? “I would argue yes,” she said. “In fact, I would question the inverse. Can men of privilege … who do not feel the impact of policies on forests, children or their ability to breast-feed children … actually have the compassion to make policy that is reflective of the interests of others? At this point, I think not.”
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports.