Female leaders headline Democratic Native Caucus

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth (Screenshot from DNC Native American Caucus meeting)

Joaqlin Estus

'Relatives, this clearly is the most important election of our time'

Joaqlin Estus and Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Indian Country Today

The first Native American Caucus meeting of this year’s Democratic National Convention kicked off online Tuesday with a land acknowledgment and a string of high-ranking female speakers.

U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids and Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan were the first in a series of Native leaders who rallied viewers to get out the vote to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

“Relatives, this clearly is the most important election of our time,” said Flanagan, White Earth, the first Native woman elected to executive office.

She noted that in Minnesota, the Native women’s caucus in the state House was able to get legislation passed, with help from the governor’s office, on issues such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, child welfare funding and government-to-government consultation.

(Related: Native leaders featured in DNC roll call)

“That work has allowed us to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, truly as partners to protect our people. But we know that we have still tremendous amounts of work to do,” she said. “And having a partner in the White House would make a big difference every day."

Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, and Davids, Ho-Chunk, are the first two Native women to serve in Congress.

Haaland noted the nation is facing several crises. More than 160,000 people have died from COVID-19.

“Following that, an economic collapse has decimated the livelihoods of millions, and a moral vacuum has left our country reeling from the effects of systemic racism,” said Haaland, of New Mexico.

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“We in Indian Country have been among the hardest hit. Native Americans died at a rate twice that of White Americans, Native-owned businesses have struggled to access the financial support that was supposed to be available to everyone, and Native Americans have continued to face the bigoted beliefs and policies that they've been confronting since, well, the late-1400s probably.”

Davids, of Kansas, said having two Native women serving in Congress changes the conversation just by having them in the room.

With their background in Indian law and experience working on reservations with tribal communities, “we have the ability to educate our colleagues and influence decision making,” she said.

“It makes a huge difference being able to educate our colleagues as peers, and it's one of the reasons that I'm so excited that we have our record-breaking number of Native folks running for office across the country.”

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According to Indian Country Today’s database, the number of Native candidates has been rising for several years, with a boost in Native female candidates over Native men.

“I feel like we're at the beginning of something pretty phenomenal of Native people really taking the reins in our state legislatures and in the federal government,” Davids said.

Another speaker, U.S. Senate candidate Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, said she sometimes is asked why there are so few Natives in elected office.

“I would say that, in large part, is because we were late to the game, late to earn the right as citizens with the right to vote,” she said. “And we're still having to overcome voter suppression today.”

She’s encouraged, however, by the organizing she’s seeing, and what she calls a spirit of awakening. “When our spirit goes through this process of awakening, we start adhering to our purpose and really truly acting in light of our spiritual connection line of our ancestry,” Jordan said.

The Idahoan serves as director of Native American Engagement for the DNC Council on the Environmental and Climate Crisis, and took part in a discussion Tuesday on the environment and climate.

She cited issues affecting her home state as a result of global warming: Snowpack is melting earlier, meltwater into streams is declining, and fish species like salmon are decreasing.

Paulette Jordan, Coeur d'Alene, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Idaho, spoke at the 2020 DNC Native American Caucus Meeting. (Screenshot)
Paulette Jordan, Coeur d'Alene, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Idaho, spoke at the 2020 DNC Native American Caucus Meeting. (Screenshot)

“These are huge concerns for us because our land, our waters, our wildlife are facing the limits of what they can endure,” Jordan said. “Idaho agriculture is a massive industry, and I grew up on my family farmland, and I know what that means and what that looks like. It’s a very intimate process, and it hits all of our families very hard.”

Jordan said everyone wins with clean energy investment.

“Whether I'm elected senator or not, I will work to protect our lands and our environment for future generations,” Jordan said. “This is a promise, a contract agreement that I have made spiritually before walking into this life, in this pathway.”

Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin, delivered a land acknowledgement at the beginning of the discussion. She said Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable communities when it comes to climate change effects.

“Mother Earth is being threatened by global warming and climate change,” Holsey said. “It is vital that we honor and protect her with active stewardship, and by educating ourselves about the significant impact of this issue, not only in our community, but within the land that we gather, live and learn.”

Keith Harper, one of the many trailblazers in Indian Country, led a discussion with tribal leaders from across the country focused on the environmental issues at stake.

Keith Harper (Screenshot)
Keith Harper (Screenshot)

Chairman Bryan Newland of the Bay Mills Indian Community was part of the panel, as well as Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr., who focused on the impact of the border wall tearing through his community.

Chief Kimberly Williams of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham touched on the detrimental effects of the Pebble Mine in Alaska. She spent the past 19 years educating others on the project and saying "it's a really bad idea."

Former Chairman Dave Archambault II from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota joined the conversation to talk about the fight for clean water and answered the big question from Harper, “How do we change, move from protest to real fundamental change?”

Archambault said it’s about having different approaches or strategies. Of course, there’s the lobbying to congressional members, state legislators and other politicians. Another strategy is Native youth building the noise, which is what happened with Standing Rock, he said.

While the noise is building, activism came into the picture, and a sense of togetherness piled on top of that.

An advocate was the last strategy, he said.

“An advocate is somebody who wants something better for the community, and an activist is somebody who sees something wrong, and we have to build awareness about that,” Archambault said. The advocate is the “political permission.”

Former Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe spoke at the 2020 DNC Native American Caucus Meeting. (Screenshot)
Former Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe spoke at the 2020 DNC Native American Caucus Meeting. (Screenshot)

“Advocates and activists don't see eye to eye until there's a time when they do come together. That's when you're going to see change," he said. "And that's what I'm starting to witness right now in today's world is when you have activists that are making enough noise.”

The noise is amplified and “now we have to make the change because we know that there's unjust treatment and law enforcement.”

Part of that change, Jordan said, stems from the next generation, especially when it comes to civic engagement.

Native youth just want support and to be heard by tribal leaders and organizations, said Jaden Probes, Lower Sioux Indian Community, a rising sophomore at Harvard College.

“It's important to know that you're not just going to be brushed off just because you're younger," she said. "It's a common issue that young people are sometimes, they’re thought less of solely because of age, but just because we're younger doesn't mean that we aren't as passionate or aren't as educated about the things that we work up and want to do."

The last message Avery Underwood, Comanche wanted to leave viewers with was to vote.

“It's important for Native people to know that we do have the power to create change, and that voting is a really important tool that can uplift Indigenous voices and put people in office that are really willing to listen to those voices,” Underwood said.

Also Tuesday, caucus organizers had to shut down an event chatroom after trolls discovered Sen. Elizabeth Warren was set to speak and inundated the livestream, with many referring to her by the derogatory nickname "Pocahontas." As first reported by the Washington Examiner, the trolls got wind of the event after members of the Trump administration blasted it and mocked Warren.

The Native American Caucus will meet again for two hours Thursday starting at 4 p.m. EDT.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist. Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is Indian Country Today's deputy managing editor and is based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb or email her at jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com. 

Indian Country Today national correspondent Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, also contributed to this report.

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