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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Tuesday’s election brought out 63 percent of eligible voters, lower than the 81.8 percent high of 1876 but more than the 50 to 60 percent range of recent elections. It exceeded expectations.

That isn’t the only change from years past. Final results are still being tallied, but enough races have been called to show voters are sending six Native candidates to Congress, a record number.

Holly Cook Macarro, Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, a partner in the lobbying firm Spirit Rock Consulting, said Natives are carving out a new role for themselves.

She said Native Americans have gone from being an afterthought to having a solid position in what she calls the “political money game.” Cook Macarro said tribes this year contributed to the first Native American super PAC, called 7-gen. It distributed the money strategically, which helped get Natives a seat at the table.

“We were a solid democratic vote in a few states, but didn't get much attention otherwise in terms of building the infrastructure, the political infrastructure for tribes and for Natives in Indian Country. In the ’90s, Indian gaming brought tribes to the table and the campaign finance arena. That was really a new space for tribal governments,” Cook Macarro said.

She said unlike elections in the past, major campaigns this year put some thought into issues important to Native Americans.

“In June, they thought about it from the beginning. And we saw multiple presidential campaigns bring on Native people to talk, to talk about Native policy, to guide the outreach, to talk about the things that are priorities for Indian country, and to make sure that these candidates, no matter who came out of the primaries, that we were well positioned across the board,” Cook Macarro said.

Tribes were among the many donors that helped get the first two Native American women in Congress, both Democrats, reelected to the U.S. House. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, represents the 3rd District of Kansas. Deb Holland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, represents New Mexico’s 1st district. They were elected to their first terms in 2018.

Haaland says she’s proud to be representing the people of New Mexico, and to be part of a growing number of Natives running for office.

“I was pleased to know that we had so many Native American candidates running across the country, not just for Congress or the Senate, the U.S. Senate, but in House and Senate districts across the country and local,” said Haaland.

“That's what we need. We need representation in elected office. We need to be where folks are making decisions. We need to be a voice at the table, regardless of what table it is, but making decisions for our people, for our constituents, for our country. It's absolutely important,” Haaland said.

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Davids told the Shawnee Mission-Post the people of Kansas “rejected the tired politics of the past,” the slashing of school budgets and being denied coverage because of having a pre-existing condition. “They chose a different vision for who we send to the United States House.”

Davids said her top priority heading back to Washington, D.C., is another large COVID-19 relief package.

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Funding and support put candidates in a competitive position, but voters put them into office.

James Ramos, Serrano/Cahuilla tribe, is the first California Native to be elected to the California State Assembly.

He’s worked on legislation dealing with suicide prevention and homelessness, along with a measure that would create a task force on voting rights “to make sure that our Native people are out there being able to vote without any hindrance, hindrance of reservations that are far away from cities and different areas in the county, that we make sure that our Native American voice counts.”

Still, success isn’t guaranteed. That’s where determination comes into play.

Lynette Greybull, Northern Arapaho/ Hunkpapa Lakota, didn’t win a seat Tuesday in the U.S. House for Wyoming. She came up short against Republican Liz Cheney, the third highest ranking member in House GOP leadership.

“In any race for any office, for either state or federal, for Indigenous people, it's imperative that we put our best efforts forward because we need to be represented in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “So whether you feel like you're up against somebody who is a powerhouse like Liz Cheney, it's important that we still have the guts and courage to put ourselves out there and make our voices be heard.”

Greybull said it was an honor to run for office, represent her supporters, and set an example for young people … and she would do it again.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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