Native women pave new path in Wyoming politics

Democrat Lynnette Grey Bull, Northern Arapaho and Hunkpapa Lakota, is seeking a U.S. House seat and is believed to be the first Native person in Wyoming to run for Congress. (Screengrab from Grey Bull campaign video)

Aliyah Chavez

Tuesday’s primaries feature a cohort of female candidates seeking state and federal office, including the first Native woman in Wyoming to run for Congress. #NativeVote20

Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

A quick browse on a Wyoming tourism website will show a 150-year milestone for the “Equality State.”

Pamphlets and websites proudly recollect Louisa Swain casting her ballot in 1870, making her the first woman in the nation to vote. This happened a whole 50 years before women elsewhere would follow suit.

But, like much else, that history is different for Native women.

Wyoming allowed Native women to vote in 1924 after they gained citizenship through the Indian Citizenship Act.

This muddled history has resulted in years of disenfranchisement of Native people, particularly women, in state and federal politics. Now, a cohort of four Native women in Wyoming is paving a new path.

Democrat Lynnette Grey Bull, Northern Arapaho and Hunkpapa Lakota, is seeking a U.S. House seat and is believed to be the first Native person in the state to run for Congress. 

In 2017, Republican Affie Ellis, Diné, became the first Native person to serve in the state Senate.

In 2018, Democrat Andi Clifford became the first Northern Arapaho woman to serve in the state’s House.

Together, Ellis and Clifford are likely the first two Native women to serve in Wyoming’s Legislature simultaneously ─ and their leadership has inspired others.

Wyoming voters participating in Tuesday’s primary election can expect to see four Native women on the ballot, including Ellis and Clifford, who are seeking reelection, and Grey Bull.

Grey Bull faces two opponents in the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, incumbent Liz Cheney is expected to breeze to November.

Republican Valaira Whiteman, Northern Arapaho, is running for a state House seat, hoping to replace Clifford in District 33, which includes part of the Wind River Reservation.

Whiteman and Clifford are running unopposed in their primaries but can expect to face off against one another in November.

Wyoming’s 33rd District is in the southwestern part of the state and is made up of more than 60 percent Native people.

The district has a recent history of close contests in the general election. In 2016, the race was decided by 47 votes. In 2018, it was decided by 58 votes.


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Lynnette Grey Bull

Lynnette Grey Bull, Northern Arapaho and Hunkpapa Lakota, poses for a photo with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Photo courtesy of Grey Bull campaign)
Lynnette Grey Bull, Northern Arapaho and Hunkpapa Lakota, poses for a photo with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Photo courtesy of Grey Bull campaign)

Grey Bull is vice president of the Global Indigenous Council, an Indigenous rights advocacy organization. Beginning in 2013, she has given presentations on human trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence awareness.

She says she never pictured herself running for office but decided to make the jump.

“I want to see an elevated change, not just for Indian Country — I fight and advocate for all those who are underrepresented or underserved,” she said.

Grey Bull has participated in a number of forums and debates in Wyoming with her Democratic opponents. She is particularly passionate about representing the working class and advocating for social justice.

If she advances to November, Grey Bull would more than likely face Cheney — and a tough race in heavily Republican Wyoming. Cheney is seeking a third term.

A win for Grey Bull would make her the first Native person to hold a federal office in Wyoming, according to the state’s secretary of state’s office.

Valaira Whiteman

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Valaira Whiteman, Northern Arapaho, is running for Wyoming's state House in District 33. (Photo courtesy of Whiteman campaign)

Whiteman says she was first encouraged to run for office because of her children. She ran several campaigns for a school board position and once for county commissioner. In 2020, Whiteman decided to run for a state House seat after a group of friends in the Republican Party endorsed her.

“That instilled a bit of confidence in me,” Whiteman said. “They are so encouraging.”

She has been reaching out to voters on social media to campaign. After the primary, Whiteman hopes to begin campaigning more in person through local events. If elected, she hopes to focus on bettering education and improving healthcare initiatives.

Andi Clifford

Democrat Andi Clifford became the first Northern Arapaho woman to serve in the Wyoming state House in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Andi Clifford)
Democrat Andi Clifford became the first Northern Arapaho woman to serve in the Wyoming state House in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Andi Clifford)

Clifford says she is seeking a second term so she can continue helping constituents with a number of issues. One is voting.

In 2020, Clifford co-authored a bill allowing tribal ID cards to be used for voter registration. If a person has a tribal ID that contains either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, they can register to vote.

Moving forward, she hopes to help restore the voting rights of constituents who have felonies.

Affie Ellis 

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Republican Affie Ellis, Diné, became the first Native person to serve in the Wyoming state Senate in 2017. (Photo by Wyoming state Legislature)

Ellis is seeking a second term in the Wyoming state Senate. She currently serves as chairwoman of the Select Committee on Tribal Relations.

The committee had a major victory during the 2020 legislative session, when it was boosted in stature, allowing it greater autonomy in passing legislation. The panel can now sponsor legislation without assistance from other committees.

Ellis faces one opponent in Tuesday’s primary. Her campaign experience during the pandemic has included reaching voters through mail.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com.

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