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Richard Arlin Walker
Underscore News

It’s noon on a Tuesday and Oregon State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-43rd District, is driving to her next meeting when she pulls over to take a call from a reporter.

Sanchez, Shoshone-Bannock, Ute and Carrizo, is running for re-election in overwhelmingly Democratic North/Central Portland, but she’s keeping the pace of a first-time candidate. She believes it’s important that the government looks like the diverse population it represents.

“I just had a conversation with the Native Action Network and they are working on their strategic plan and they asked, ‘What do you think we should be doing and working on in the future?’” she told Underscore News.

“And my response was, ‘We should be making sure our people know that the foundation of this government we all live under came from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and from a much greater and more respectful process than what we have now,’” Sanchez said. “And we should be the ones able to bring that back. It’s based on Indigenous ways and knowledge and understanding of what representative government really should look like.”

An Indigenous voice is one rarely heard in the halls of the state Senate and House, representatives of Oregon’s 4.2 million residents. There are nine federally recognized tribal nations in Oregon and some 100,000 Oregonians identify as Indigenous Americans – most of them Native American, as well as Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to the U.S. Census.

In addition, Portland is the ninth-largest urban Indigenous community in the U.S. While 1.5 percent of the population identifies as Native American/Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

But since Oregon became a state in 1859, only two Native Americans have been elected to the state House: Sanchez and Jacqueline S. Taylor, Citizen Potawatomi, who served from 1991 until 2000. Another current lawmaker, State Rep. Teresa Alonso León, D-22nd District (parts of Marion County) is Indigenous Mexican.

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, Alonso Leon immigrated to Oregon with her family when she was a child. She became a U.S. citizen in 2012, earned a master’s in public administration from Portland State University and served on the Woodburn City Council before being elected to the state House in 2016.

In the legislature, she chairs the House Education Committee. She sponsored legislation that created a new state agency focused on childcare and early learning, and supported universal healthcare, reducing student debt and college tuition, universal preschool for all children, campaign finance reform, and immigration and criminal justice reform. She leaves the legislature in January, having chosen to instead run for Oregon’s newly created 6th Congressional District seat. She did not advance out of the May 17 primary.

Jacqueline Taylor, a Democrat, was a dynamo who started her public service career in Idaho as a regional director of volunteer services. She served on the Astoria Civil Service Commission, the Clatsop County Board of County Commissioners, and the Oregon Commission for Women. She was also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Legislature, representing Potawatomi citizens living in the Northwest and parts of the Midwest.

Much of Taylor’s focus in Oregon’s House of Representatives was on education, transportation, water and the environment. She also worked between sessions on economic development and services specifically for Native Americans. Astoria’s mayor told local newspapers after her death in 2008 that Taylor “was a tremendous part of our community.”

Sanchez says electing more Indigenous people and other people of color is a critical step to help Oregon to become a more equitable place, where historically marginalized peoples have a voice.

“It’s important to recognize everyone in our state and recognize that if you don’t have the life experience and the innate understanding of various cultures, your perspective is going to be different,” Sanchez said. “I have dealt with other legislators for years and watched the lights go on in their heads as you explain something that is only logical to me – that as a Native person I’m not thinking about the immediacy of a decision we make right now and how it will just affect you and your immediate family. I’m thinking about how it will affect seven generations from now.”

Sanchez is likely to win reelection. There were 13,335 ballots cast by Democrats in the 43rd District primary in May, and 460 cast by Republicans.

Annessa Hartman, Haudenosaunee, faces a more significant challenge in her bid to represent the 40th District, on the southern edge of Portland in Clackamas County. Some 4,644 ballots were cast by Democrats in the 40th District primary in May; 5,316 were cast by Republicans. The Democratic incumbent, Mark Meek, vacated his seat with a run for state Senate.

Racial progress comes slow

Fourteen of 90 state legislators are people of color, according to OregonLegislature.gov; only one, Sanchez, is Native American. Statewide, several Indigenous people and other people of color have been elected to city councils and school boards. But that’s hardly commensurate, considering that people of color comprise 38.4% of the state’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Hartman said finances are often barriers for candidates who are Indigenous or people of color.

“Running for office is incredibly time-consuming and candidates like myself are unable to give up our full-time job,” Hartman said. “That means we juggle our family life, our day job, the campaign work of hours of weekly voter outreach and fundraising and other commitments, like my work on City Council. Then when we are elected, we can’t give up our current jobs because the legislators are considered part-time workers and the pay is so low.”

Native candidates for office in Oregon share seven-generations thinking and their cultures share post-European contact experiences – such as displacement, boarding schools, discrimination and federal assimilation policies. Many also hail from rural areas, where their political affiliation is as vastly outnumbered as their demographic.

Carina Miller, a former Warm Springs Tribal Council member and current secretary of the Oregon Democratic Party’s Native American Caucus, ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2020 from the 30th District, where Republican voters outnumber Democrats 2 to 1.

“When I decided to run, it was never to win,” Miller said. “Of course, we got the numbers, we tried to hit doors, we tried to do phone calling and all of those things, but the race was for the ‘little girl me’ who went to middle school here and heard people say racist things about Natives and Black people and Mexicans and not once did a white teacher or a white classmate or anyone stand up and say those things were wrong,” Miller said.

“And so for people like me, who are out in these areas where Republicans are stacked against us, it’s literally to try to give voice to myself when I was younger, to try to stand up against everything that was stacked against me -- the minimization of the racism by the school district, all the people who were part of it and complacent, all the adults in my tribe who weren’t strong and vocal against everything,” Miller said. “I don’t want that for my kids, I don’t want that for these kids.”

Hartman is the first Indigenous person elected to the City Council in Gladstone, a city of 12,000 located at the confluence of the Clackamas and Willamette rivers. She was elected in November 2020 and, at the time, was marketplace and retail coordinator for the Native American Youth and Family Center. She’s been director of Unite Oregon’s Clackamas County chapter since April. Before that, Hartman worked for 12 years as a catering manager, event planner and sales manager for catering companies and hotels in California and Oregon.

“I grew up in a working family where my mom would have to make tough decisions about what to pay for when things were tight,” Hartman told Underscore News. “That means I get what so many are going through. I came into community service as a community organizer. It was the experience of bringing people together to fight for a better life that propelled me to become a city councilor, and I’ll keep those core experiences with me and integrate what I have learned as a councilor when I am a state representative.”

Of her work as a council member, she said: “I am proud of how I have been able to bring in community voices throughout my work on council.”

The work was not easy.

The opposition Hartman faced as a Gladstone City Council member over the last two years brought to light how the community is still struggling to come to terms with its history in a state that was envisioned in 1859 as a “white utopia.”

In many ways, that history is recent history.

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It was during the grandparents’ grandparents’ time that settlers moved in and took land before treaties were negotiated between Indigenous leaders and the United States government -- tantamount to moving onto property before the original occupant says it’s for sale.

It was during the great-grandparents’ time that an unethical real estate practice called redlining took root, particularly in Portland. The practice kept people of color from buying homes in neighborhoods preferred by whites.

The grandparents and aunties and uncles were separated as children from their families and sent to boarding schools. Their own children would grow up in a United States that said they and their tribal nations didn’t exist.

In 2017, the Oregon legislature approved laws requiring the teaching of Native history in public schools and allowing Native students to wear regalia during graduation. Miller considers those laws “progress” but “not transformative.” The Native history curriculum “teaches the basic identity of tribes,” she said. A proposed ethnic studies curriculum, on the other hand, would delve into politics and policies of the past and how they’ve affected, and in many cases continue to affect, Indigenous peoples in Oregon.

Likewise in Gladstone. A business that displayed signage celebrating diversity was vandalized in 2020, when Hartman was a candidate for council. Anti-Semitic and homophobic harassment and vandalism were reported over the ensuing two years, including by groups of Proud Boys who reportedly harassed people at the shop during a bingo event that featured drag performers. The mayor’s sister accused Hartman and others at a council meeting of being “antifa.” The mayor, Tammy Stempel, “stayed silent,” the Oregonian reported. The sister later accused Hartman of being a terrorist for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Stempel, a candidate for reelection who supported Hartman’s opponent in the Nov. 8 general election, did not return a call from Underscore News requesting comment.

Hartman’s first act as a council member was to propose that City Council meetings begin with an acknowledgement that Gladstone is the ancestral lands of the peoples who now comprise the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. A local school board member told the City Council that land acknowledgements are a first step “in healing the generational trauma placed upon Indigenous people,” The Portland Tribune reported at the time.

The proposal failed by one vote.

Meanwhile, in her candidacy for state House, Hartman is endorsed by 19 elected officials, four labor unions, and seven organizations and political action groups promoting women, people of color and access to health care.

“I am committed to protecting reproductive health in Oregon,” Hartman told Underscore News. “As a working mother of two, my commitment to supporting families by lowering costs of childcare, investing in quality education and increasing housing affordability is personal. We also must improve the quality of our infrastructure, so it is a priority to fund the necessary repairs to improve our quality of life, have a more sustainable economy, and be prepared for upcoming natural disasters.

Hartman’s Republican opponent, Adam Baker, is a police officer in Gresham. Among his priorities: more funding for police and first responders; treating opioid addiction as a public safety issue and providing treatment as an alternative to jail time; and tougher penalties for domestic violence, elder abuse, and human trafficking.

In a candidate statement published on the Oregon Secretary of State’s website, Baker wrote that he “stands strong” in support of gun ownership and opposes government “overreach.”

Since joining the Gresham Police Department in 1998, Baker has served as a detective, hostage/crisis negotiator, and training officer, among other roles, according to his campaign website.

“We need to acknowledge there is a difference between those down on their luck, and those choosing to live a life of crime and vagrancy,” he wrote.

Baker is endorsed by 11 law enforcement, business and veterans organizations and five elected officials, including Stempel and two Gladstone City Council members.

Bipartisan support for legislation

Sanchez said she has much in common with her constituents.

“I could show you the house – it used to be in my district – where I lived as a little kid. I’ve lived in my district most of my life,” she said.

Sanchez has a master’s degree in social work and, as director of family services for the Native American Youth and Family Center, manages aging and disability and veterans’ services, domestic violence healing, and early childhood and foster care programs.

“I live and work the things that come down from the legislature – that’s my job,” she said.

Much of the legislation Sanchez has co-sponsored has had bipartisan support.

Among them this session: ensuring that state rules and regulations use "noncitizen" rather than “alien” to reference a person who is not a citizen or national of the United States, requiring the state Department of Transportation to reduce the use of construction materials attributed to greenhouse gas emissions, creating procedures for submission of petitions for compensation for wrongful convictions and expanding the list of cancers among firefighters that are covered by workers compensation.

In the previous session, Sanchez chaired the House Committee on Behavioral Health, cosponsored legislation establishing a 988 suicide crisis hotline and provided funding for mobile crisis response.

She also helped create the Tribal Relations Liaison position within the Oregon State Police to improve the response and investigation of cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people. She also secured funding for the state Department of Public Safety Standards & Training to develop proposed curriculum on missing and murdered Indigenous people, and requiring local police to honor tribal court orders.

Sanchez is endorsed by U.S. senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, nine labor unions and the League of Conservation Voters, among other organizations.

Her Republican opponent, Tim Lemaster, is a retired U.S. Marine and a small business owner. Lemaster’s priorities are reducing taxes, increasing policing and allowing the use of public education funds for home schooling, private schools, charter schools and trade schools.

“You have the opportunity to elect someone who will search for and recommend new solutions, not just throw more money at bad policy,” Lemaster wrote in his candidate statement.

For her part, Sanchez wants to raise the minimum wage, strengthen protections for workers, invest in affordable housing, as well as substance abuse treatment and recovery services, and reform the criminal justice system to prevent racial profiling and the use of excessive force.

“We should be servants for the people,” Sanchez said. “We say that, but are we really and what does that mean to us? And are we providing the services to our constituents that they really deserve?”

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a journalist living in Anacortes, Washington. He writes for ICT, Hamiinat magazine, and other publications. 

Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.