6 Native legislative candidates advance in Minnesota

Heather Keeler, Yankton Sioux, Minnesota House District 4A candidate. (Photo courtesy of Keeler's campaign website.)

Dalton Walker

Updated: Heather Keeler, Yankton Sioux, won her primary Tuesday, joining two other Natives who will appear on the general election ballot in the state House and three in the Senate. #NativeVote20

Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

Minnesota will have six Native American candidates in state legislative races come November.

Democratic candidate Heather Keeler, Yankton Sioux, captured the Minnesota House, District 4A primary on Tuesday with 66 percent of the vote.

Keeler received 1,877 votes, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State Office. She moves on to face Republican Edwin Hahn in November’s general election. Hahn received 844 votes Tuesday in an uncontested party race.

Keeler praised her supporters who voted in a COVID-19 pandemic.

“It tells me that my community is invested in being a voice for change,” Keeler said. “We had a huge turnout for just the primary, and so that leads me to believe that we'll have a really good turnout in November.”

Keeler said she’s been connecting with community members through phone and other nonphysical efforts.

“We still have no significant plan to knock on doors because the health of my community is a priority, and so we are still going to be making a virtual world as personalized as possible,” she added.

Absentee ballots in Minnesota postmarked by Aug. 11 and received by Aug. 13 will be counted, meaning Tuesday’s results could increase. However, Keeler appears to be in good shape moving to November and said her primary opponent called her to concede.

Keeler joins Democrats Jamie Becker-Finn, Leech lake Band of Ojibwe descent, and Gaylene Spolarich, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in November races for House seats. Becker-Finn, an incumbent, and Spolarich were uncontested and didn’t have a primary.

Democrats Alan Roy, White Earth Nation, and Mary Kunesh-Podein, Standing Rock Soux descent, are seeking seats in the state Senate. Both ran uncontested for the party ticket and didn’t have a primary. Kunesh-Podein is currently serving in the Minnesota House.

Donna Bergstrom, Red Lake Nation, ran uncontested in a Republican primary in District 7 for state Senate. 

Lyz Jaakola, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, appears to be one step closer to the Cloquet City Council. Cloquet is a reservation border town near Duluth, Minnesota.

Jaakola received nearly 49 percent of the vote in her three-person primary race with the top two moving on to a runoff in November. She received 210 votes and the second place finisher received 117, according to state results.

With absentee ballots not yet counted, Jaakola said Tuesday night that she wasn’t celebrating yet. The longtime educator ran for council two years ago but didn’t make it. This time, if percentages hold, she has a great chance in the runoff.

“I'm humbled, I’m excited, I’m a little nervous because now that means I have to dig in and get some work done,” Jaakola said.

If she wins in November, she’ll join Sheila Lamb, White Earth Nation, Eastern Cherokee, on the City Council. Lamb is a former college student of Jaakola.

“I think there’s some people that are from town that are a little concerned that I’m only going to be thinking of the tribal citizens, but that's not true at all,” Jaakola said. “I think that we work best when we work together towards shared, common goals. That's what I ran my campaign on.”

In Beltrami County, four Native candidates were on the primary ballot, and initial results show that only one made it to a runoff.

Audrey Thayer, White Earth Nation, received 50 percent of the vote for the Bemidji City Council Ward 1 seat. She received 140 votes in the five-person race that included another Native woman, Laura Fairbanks, Red Lake Nation. The second-place finisher received 67 votes. Bemidji is the county’s largest community.

“I am feeling pretty humble right now,” Thayer said on Facebook. “It is about you all! Miigwech for all the support. The signs, donations, encouragement, faith and trust. We are halfway there.”

Ernest “Joey” Oppegaard-Peltier, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, didn’t receive enough votes for Ward 5 and will not be in November’s council runoff. Oppegaard-Peltier trails second place by 42 votes.

Christian Taylor-Johnson, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descent, was 33 votes behind the second-place finisher for the Beltrami County Commissioner District 5 seat. The top two vote-getters in the three-person race move on to a November runoff.

Still, Oppegaard-Peltier and Taylor-Johnson have an outside shot as any absentee votes will be counted. Final results will be known by Friday.

In Wisconsin, two Ho-Chunk women ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. Tricia Zunker will be on the U.S. House, District 7 ballot, and Amanda White Eagle will be on the state assembly ballot for District 92.

Minnesota Native candidates:

  • WON: Heather Keeler, Yankton Sioux, MN House, District 4A
  • UNCONTESTED: Jamie Becker-Finn, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descent, MN House, District 42B
  • UNCONTESTED: Gaylene Spolarich, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, MN House, District 10B
  • UNCONTESTED: Alan Roy, White Earth Nation, MN Senate, District 2
  • UNCONTESTED: Mary Kunesh-Podein, Standing Rock Sioux descent, MN Senate, District 41
  • UNCONTESTED: Donna Bergstrom, Red Lake Nation, MN Senate, District 7
  • RUNOFF: Lyz Jaakola, Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Cloquet City Council
  • RUNOFF: Audrey Thayer, White Earth Nation, Bemidji City Council, Ward 1
  • Laura Fairbanks, Red Lake Nation, Bemidji City Council, Ward 1
  • Ernest “Joey” Oppegaard-Peltier, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Bemidji City Council, Ward 5
  • Christian Taylor-Johnson, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descent, Beltrami County Commissioner

Wisconsin Native candidates:

  • UNCONTESTED: Tricia Zunker, Ho-Chunk, U.S. House, District 7
  • UNCONTESTED: Amanda White Eagle, Ho-Chunk, WI State Assembly, District 92

Update: This story has been updated to include Republican candidate Donna Bergstrom.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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