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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

For the first time North Dakota’s Democratic Party has a Native American Caucus, an accomplishment organizers say is 40 years in the making.

Leading the effort are three women, all Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation citizens, who completed a caucus application before it was unanimously approved by the party’s State Policy Committee on Saturday.

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Twyla Baker, North Dakota state representative Ruth Buffalo and Prairie Rose Seminole are currently organizing the caucus with an ultimate hope of bringing long-term political engagement to the state’s tribal nations and its Democratic party.

“We know there is a hunger to house a space for us to dialogue, to organize and to work with,” Seminole said. Forty-one individuals from every tribal nation in the state contributed by virtually finalizing the application before it was submitted.

North Dakota joins others who are creating space to recognize Native people in their state. Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oregon and Utah also have established Native caucuses’ in their state’s Democratic party.

Nationally, the Democratic party has a Native American Caucus, too.

“We’re grateful for the community leaders stepping up to carry on the important work of organizing Native Americans across the state who deserve a stronger say in North Dakota,” the state’s party chairwoman Kylie Oversen said.

Seminole said the idea of the caucus has been years in the making and others have been trying to organize it for at least 40 years.

“Today is a historic day! The Native American Caucus has been formed and approved unanimously within the Dem-NPL. We look forward to building and strengthening relationships across the state,” Buffalo, the first Native Democratic woman to serve in the North Dakota state Legislature, wrote in a tweet Monday.

Baker is president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, North Dakota, while Seminole is a policy analyst at the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The connection between Seminole, Baker and Buffalo began years ago. Seminole first met Buffalo in Fargo and have been close for about 10 years. Seminole and Baker have been close the last two decades (they are also clan sisters).

"This will be a learning experience for our communities and for the Dem-NPL,” Baker said. “There are different practices and approaches to democratic participation, and we want to establish a practice of building leadership beyond voter engagement.”

A key part of the state’s Native American Caucus, organizers say, is to encourage Native candidates to run for office.

This year three other Native women could join Buffalo in the state’s Legislature where Buffalo currently serves as the only Native legislator. November’s general election will include all Native Democratic female candidates. In the state’s House, Thomasina Mandan, MHA Nation, and Tracey Wilkie, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, are running to be elected. In the state’s Senate, Lisa Finley-DeVille, MHA Nation, is running.

“This has been a long time coming. Diversity will only strengthen relationships across the state to address the issues that not only face our tribal communities, but our rural and urban populations. More native voices in the political landscape of North Dakota only deepens our understanding of one another, and there is value in knowing who our neighbors are and what impact public policy may have.” -Ruth Buffalo

The state’s Democratic party will host a celebration for the new caucus on Sept. 29 to discuss the issues of Native people. Headlining the event will be former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Buffalo and various democratic candidates.

The event will be streamed on the party’s Facebook page.

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