A group of Native Americans met in Rapid City this March to figure out their role as advocates in a city that they feared was losing touch with its most vulnerable residents. Days before, several of them had testified against Rapid City’s panhandling ordinance, saying the ordinance was inhumane and possibly unlawful.
The biggest takeaway was that it would disproportionately affect the city’s Native American population.
The meeting shifted to a strategy session. It was clear that none of the city council candidates understood Native issues. Who was running for city office? And that led to the question, then, if not me, who?
A slate emerged: Natalie Stites Means as the candidate for mayor; Cante Heart, Ramona Herrington, Terra Houska, Stephanie Savoy for the ward representatives; and a school board candidate, LaFawn Janis.
None of these candidates had run for office before. Yet all were seasoned advocates. “It is hard to come from the backgrounds that we represent and not reach adulthood as a seasoned and well-informed advocate,” Stites Means said.
Five days before the filing deadline, Stites Means turned in her paperwork and signatures and she officially became a challenger to incumbent Mayor Steve Allender.
Janis’ candidacy has since been disqualified, and she lost a suit to have her name reinstated on the ballot. And so the slate of Native women is Heart, Herrington, Houska, and Savoy representing wards 1, 2, 3, and 5.
The election is Tuesday June 4.
Stites Means says she was “thrust into the political process.” She has been involved peripherally in politics her entire career, but always as a government employee, legal or policy advisor, or consultant. “Never did I consider that I would be a candidate myself,” she said. “I have always enjoyed advising on policy, especially for vulnerable populations. But I felt obligated to step forward on behalf of this growing city.”
Stites Means started her career in public service working in the California state assembly, before returning to the University of California, Los Angeles for a Juris Doctorate and a certificate in Public Interest Law & Policy. After law school, she worked in the legal and judicial branches of various tribal governments and eventually relocated to South Dakota. She is enrolled Cheyenne River Sioux.
Over the years she has consulted for a variety of organizations in the area of victim and childhood advocacy.
Her platform is robust for what many see as a small city, but what she sees is a city facing a critical moment and she does not want anyone left behind.
She is eager to take a new approach to mental health issues, housing issues, improve transportation making it easier for working families to reach their employment.
Stites Means also wants the city to have a stronger relationship with its tribal neighbors.
She also has a philosophical disagreement with the current mayor who is bent on shrinking government.
Allender dismisses the Native slate of candidates. He says he’s heard from the community that some only see them as running because they are Native.
He is a two-term mayor. He ran his last race unopposed.
Before his election, Allender served his entire career as a member of the police force, eventually working his way up to chief.
In a recent Black Hills Fox candidate forum, Allender veered awkwardly away from a discussion on the city’s role in race relations. He did cite the lack of Native representation in government, then the overrepresentation in jails and homelessness, returning to involving the police and greater community in race relations. Concluding: Unfortunately “law enforcement is the dumping grounds for all social problems.”
He is also interested in exploring whether or not Rapid City might be more effectively led like a business and he wants to study the city manager model of administration. When pressed for the reasoning behind this idea, one factor he cited was a lack of qualified candidates who are willing to run for city offices.
Stites Means and her colleagues are clearly not representative of that notion.
Instead, they mirror a national trend of younger and more diverse candidates entering politics — a trend that has produced the most diverse United States Congress in history.
The candidates would like to do the same thing in Rapid City, bringing diversity to local government. “My heritage is certainly part of why I am running but my insight is focused on building bridges instead of furthering the narrative of identity politics,” says Stites Means.
At a recent video taping, Stites Means and Allender had the opportunity to address the issue. Stites Means noted that from the current composition of city government, you would not deduce that Native Americans make up such a large segment of the population. Mayor Allender even concurred. “I agree with Natalie.” (Native Americans are at least 12 percent of Rapid City's population.)
More than being Native American candidates, the common theme from the candidates is inclusivity. These are women who all have extensive experience advocating on behalf of those who may not have the ability to on their own. They are experienced at being across the table from a government who is not adequately serving those they represent. Their goal is to change that from within.
Terra Houska, Oglala, is running in the first ward. She is a 10 year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, and much of her career has also focused on health education.
“I think with these elections so many people are stereotyping us Native candidates as activists and angry women,” she says. “I am running because I want my kids to grow up in this beautiful city and be proud of where they are from. I have already seen Rapid City change since I was a kid. And now that I am older I would like to see more change and the best way to make change is to go out and do it, not sit at home and complain about it.”
Ramona Harrington, Oglala, running in the second ward, is a veteran of both the U.S. Army and Navy, and is a co-founder of the nonprofit One Rapid City. In addition to her volunteer advocacy, she also works as a community liaison for a youth sexual violence prevention program. “We need to take action on the things that are affecting the community the most,” she said. “There are many things that need to be done in Rapid City besides the civic center expansion.”
Stephanie Savoy, Crow Creek, is running in the third ward. According to the Native Sun News, Savoy decided to enter the race at the encouragement of Stites Means and the other Native women candidates. She currently works as a referral coordinator for Rapid City Schools.
Cante Heart, Rosebud, is deeply invested in ward five, having lived in the district for 20 years where she is raising her family. A long time Native vote organizer, she now works as a digital media coordinator for the Lakota People’s Law Project. She cites the city’s crumbling infrastructure as a critical concern, specifically roads, bridges, and deteriorating schools. “Our community is diverse and is filled with many people from all walks of life,” she said. “It is imperative that all these people’s voices are heard.”
Native Americans have been involved in extra-tribal politics for a long time. In rural red states like South Dakota, they are the cornerstone of the Democratic Party’s base. While some in Rapid City may be surprised at the sophisticated campaigns run by these women, nobody else in Indian Country is all that shocked. Especially after the 2018 midterms and the election of Reps. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, and Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico. These women already know what to do.
And on Election Day? Sites Means says "we are optimistic."
Nicole Willis, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, is a longtime political strategist based in Seattle.
(Cover photo: Natalie Stites Means is a candidate for Rapid City's mayor. Campaign photo via Facebook.)