Changing the perception of Natives, one campaign video at a time

Tatewin Means - Together - 2018
Tatewin Means - Together - 2018

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Native political campaign videos represent an entirely new discourse, a richer, more complex picture. #NativeVote18

Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

Here’s one way that Native politicians have already won this election: Stereotypes are shattered every time a campaign commercial is produced and aired on television or distributed online.

Native American images are mostly absent from commercial television and then when they do show up it’s the standard character list of drunks, beautiful maidens, stoic (or wise) warriors, and magical medicine men. As Jonathan Joss told Mashable a couple of years ago: “In my career, I have played a drunk, I have played a holy man, I’ve played an Indian on horseback … It hasn’t been until the last 15 years of my career that I’ve been able to wear a nice suit.” Joss played casino executive Ken Hotate in Parks and Recreation.

That’s why political campaign commercials represent an entirely new discourse, one that gives viewers a richer, more complex account of contemporary Native people.

“My full name is Tatuye Topa Najin Win,” Tatewin Means writes in an open letter to South Dakota voters. “I am Sisitonwan Dakota, Oglala Lakota, and Ihanktonwan Nakota. My mother is Peggy Phelps, she is Sisitonwan Dakota. My father is the late Russell Means, he is Oglala Lakota, and Ihanktonwan Nakota.”

Means’ campaign commercial — and this must be a first — has two versions, one in Lakota and one in English. So far both are online. South Dakota does not have a primary for statewide races. Instead nominations will be decided at the Democratic Party convention starting June 15 in Sioux Falls.

Means’ campaign commercial — Lakota Version

But think about a general campaign and imagine the people of South Dakota consuming new kinds of Native American images. This is a story that will help them reimagine their own place in the world because they see a professional Native woman who is clearly qualified for the state’s top legal job. In fact, you could argue she’s more qualified because of life experiences and challenges that another South Dakotan could never have even imagined. Mind. Blown.

Means eloquently makes her own case: “I am running for Attorney General because I know I am the best suited to lead South Dakota in a new direction. I graduated from Stanford University, the University of Minnesota Law School and earned a Masters from Oglala Lakota College.”

Paulette Jordan is also changing the image of a Native American woman in Idaho. She is not using campaign videos in her bid for governor because she has something better, free media. There are dozens of stories by national media. The most recent was on ABC News that said the Coeur d’Alene tribal member “was birthed into politics” by a family legacy, “a quiet and peaceful ranch surrounded by wildlife, bluegrass, and elders who she describes as self-sufficient, full of wisdom and teachings that she has carried along with her in life.”

This is an image Idaho is not used to seeing. Or as Jordan said in her ABC interview: “We’re breaking one barrier after another. I want to inspire (young women) to do more, feel emboldened to take on leadership roles. I want more young women to feel strong.”

Indigeneity is a theme that transcends tribes, and regions, this political season.

Kaniela Ing is running for the U.S. House from Hawaii. His video recalls his struggle as a young man working in the pineapple fields where he got his “first calluses” and “first paycheck.”

In the commercial, Ing clearly articulates his Native identity and why it’s important to Hawaii. He also told Mic: “When you’re Hawaiian in politics, they tell you to avoid that part of your identity … Hawaiians aren’t reliable voters. Folks who are reliable voters do not really empathize with indigenous struggles here. So, they say, ‘Don’t use your Hawaiian name. Don’t talk about Hawaiian issues.’ But you know, I’m defying that. I’m gonna do me. Throughout my career, it’s been refreshing for a lot of folks that I’m not running from [my] identity.”

Oklahoma Republican Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, has a video that directly links him to President Donald J. Trump through common ground, business.

A potential competitor in his district, Democrat Jason Nichols has a video that begins with a reference to his Oklahoma roots and Cherokee citizenship.

Indeed, the technology of making a video has changed dramatically, making it easier and less expensive for candidates to tell voters about themselves and priorities. In Washington state, Debra Lekanoff, running for the House, gives a pitch from the shores of the Puget Sound on her morning run. She said she wants to be a voice for everyone who would call that area home. “Life is about choices, my friend. You get up do a good morning run to a little bit of Led Zeppelin, you drink a mean cup of coffee, you wake up your loved ones and send them off in a good way, (and) I made the choice to represent each and everyone of you.”

Rep. Peggy Flanagan, who is running for Lt. Governor with running mate Tim Walz, posted a longer video that outlines policy and an unabashed support for the social programs that made a difference to her. “I am a member of the White Earth Nation of the Ojibwe. I grew up with a single mom,” she said. “You know it’s programs like Section 8, child care assistance act, food stamps, those programs really helped lift my family out of poverty. When I am at the Capitol and I hear people talk about “those people.” I am “those people” and I am an example of what happens when you invest in children, when you invest in families.”

This is an example of a powerful narrative, a challenge to the very idea that government is ineffective. Instead the story is a personal reflection of success.

Flanagan is also a master of social media. She immediately tweeted after President Donald J. Trump told Navy Academy graduates last week that “our ancestors tamed a continent” and that “we are not going to apologize for America. Her response: “Mr. President, I’m an untamed Native woman running for office along with 64 of my indigenous sisters.”

Deb Haaland just won the nomination in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District in the June 5 primary. Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, reminded voters that Congress has “never heard a voice like mine.” That ad also includes support for Standing Rock and the fight against big oil.

Like Jordan, Haaland is also getting national media. The latest is an NBC News piece about former Obama campaign alumni running for office. “I feel like if I hadn’t worked for the president, I would never have had the courage or the wherewithal to run,” she told NBC News, recounting an unsuccessful 2014 bid for lieutenant governor before she successfully ran for state party chair. “I think about him every single day.”

Her latest ad focuses on “women like us.” in a tweet she cites, “women of color, single moms, lesbians & transwomen, military families, & any woman who has ever been assaulted or harassed. Now is the time to be fierce and demand change.”

Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, is running for Congress in Kansas. She has two powerful ads. In the first, she partners with Chris Haulmark, a candidate for the Kansas state House, they have a conversation about inclusivity and politics using sign language. “Chris and I don’t look alike. Or talk alike,” Davids says in the ad. “But we both know what it’s like to fight through challenges. … And we’re both dedicated to changing and reshaping the conversations that are happening now throughout all levels of our government.”

This ad makes you feel good about what’s possible. (It’s also a fundraising vehicle.)

Recently Davids released a very different kind of ad — one that will be talked about nationwide. In this video, Davids, a former MMA fighter, is in the ring and ready to spar. “This is a tough place to be a woman,” she says. “I have had to fight like hell just to survive. And it’s clear that Trump and the Republicans in Washington don’t give a damn about anyone like me or anyone who doesn’t think like them.”

This ad is about defiance. As Davids says: “One thing for sure, I won’t back down. Because progress is undefeated. We just need to fight for it.”

Politics aside what these women and men are doing on television and social media is remarkable. They are redefining the very image of a Native American in a complex, multicultural society. This is a story missing from drama, comedy and even non-fiction. Yet it’s worth telling, a story about professionalism, shared values, and aspirations. Perhaps there should be a television show about that.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on TwitterFollow @TrahantReports