Indian Country Today
It’s a mantra that’s always been true and a phrase that has been increasingly stated in recent years. From Hollywood to professional sports head coaching positions to public offices, people of color are creating spaces for themselves in institutions they haven’t previously been represented in.
Consider 2018, when more Natives ran for public office at all levels than in any prior year. Those midterm elections, Reps. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, and Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, “broke the glass ceiling” when they became the first two Native women elected to Congress.
Native people make up roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population and equal representation in Congress would be 11 members. Currently there are four in Congress: Haaland and Davids, plus Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee.
Perhaps Congress could learn a lesson from Montana, where the number of tribal citizens in the state legislature equals the percentage of Natives residing in the state. Shane Morigeau, Salish and Kootenai, recently told Indian Country Today that representation ensures Native voices are heard on issues that affect tribal communities.
Home to eight federally recognized tribes, Natives are roughly 7 percent of the state’s population and are the largest minority group in the state.
“I think when you have that representation, a lot of the critical issues impacting our communities,” Morigeau said of the legislature's makeup. “I mean, I always look at it when all of our communities are doing better, Montana is doing better.”
In total, there are 11 Native members of the Montana state legislature. Morigeau, along with Barbara Bessette, Chippewa Cree; Jade Bahr, Northern Cheyenne; Rae Peppers, Northern Cheyenne; Marvin Weatherwax Jr., Blackfeet; Tyson Runningwolf, Blackfeet; Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, Crow; Jonathan Windy Boy, Chippewa Cree; Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne; Susan Webber, Blackfeet; and Frank Smith, Assiniboine and Sioux.
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Together, they make up the Montana American Indian Caucus and have become a pretty tight-knit group, according to Bessette. She said they have a group chat that they communicate through regularly, even when the legislature is not in session.
“I just find being part of that is an amazing experience,” Bessette said. “There's so much support, if you have questions, if you don't understand anything, there's always someone that you can go to and talk with.”
In an email to Indian Country Today, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock spoke highly of the Indian Caucus saying that the government functions best when it represents the people it serves. He added that the Native legislators brought forth first-hand knowledge of issues facing their communities and worked diligently to find solutions.
“By having equal representation in the Legislature, the Indian Caucus was tireless in advocating for what’s important, including a package of bills to begin addressing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic, ensuring Montana honors Native heritage by flying the flags of the eight Tribal Nations in Montana permanently at the Capitol, and reauthorizing Medicaid Expansion,” Bullock said. “Beyond the Legislature, Native Americans are impacting government at every level to make a difference in communities in every corner of the state.”
Having a legislative body that reflects the population allows for these issues to be brought forward, Bessette said. Especially when it comes to missing and murdered Indigenous women, as the Native members of the state legislature are likely to know someone affected by the crisis.
Beyond the Native legislators, a recent symbolic gesture illustrated the strong relationship tribes have with lawmakers in the state capital.
The flags from each of the state’s federally recognized tribes now fly high in Tribal Flag Plaza in front of the Capitol building, at the same height as the American and Montana state flags.
During the flag raising ceremony, Bullock said the Montana state house that “belongs to all of Montana’s people'' and the tribal flags will fly in front for generations to come.
“No Native American in Montana should feel like they ever have to walk through the back door of the Capitol,” Bullock said during his address at the flag raising ceremony. “That seat is right at the table, where you have a voice, your voice is heard and will continue to be heard.”
Braving the cold, watching the ceremony was a spiritual experience, Bessette said.
“I get really, really emotional when I talk about it because it was just like to see all the flags and to know that this means that people will feel welcomed here. That this is a place for everybody that this isn't just a place for one type of person, all people are welcome at our state Capitol,” she said. “To watch the Rocky Boy flag be raised and to know what my ancestors went through for me to be standing there, is just, it's indescribable. It was amazing.”
While it’s hard work, Bessette added that she hopes to continue to see Natives running for office at all levels.
“Take up space where we have not always been allowed to take up space.”
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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