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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Five Native women leaders from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan met Friday during a virtual Native American talking circle to discuss the Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates.

The public event was organized as a Native American talking circle, but it ended being what could be the first national campaign focused exclusively on Native women.

Convened by the Biden-Harris campaign, the meeting highlights the importance of the Native vote in the upcoming presidential election.

And there are numbers that are significant. In Wisconsin, more than 54,000 people claim Native ancestry, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. President Donald Trump won that state by 22,748 votes in 2016. According to the Washington Post, 1.5 percent of eligible voters in Wisconsin in 2018 were either Native American or Alaskan Native.

And that’s just a start. There are more Native voters than the winning percentage from 2016 in at least six other states: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina.

North Carolina is the first state voting; both in-person and mail ballots are now available.

This kind of math shows Native voters could determine the next president. And that sense was reflected in the talking circle. Participants included Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe; Tricia Zunker, Ho-Chunk Nation, associate justice of the Ho-Chunk Nation supreme court and candidate for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District; Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Indians of Wisconsin; Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota; and Whitney Gravelle, tribal attorney and citizen of Bay Mills Indian Community of Michigan. Gravelle is also a member of the Michigan Women’s Commission.

Rachel Banks Kupcho, Leech Lake Band Ojibwe, Minnesota Native engagement director, Arvina Martin, Ho-Chunk and Stockbridge-Munsee Community of Indians, Wisconsin Native Vote director, and Rose Dady, Michigan Coalitions director, posed questions to the leaders about issues important for each community and Native Americans in general in relation to the election.

Screen shot of Shelley Buck, President of the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

According to Zunker, respect for tribal sovereignty and treaty rights is an overarching concern for tribes. She shared an anecdote about visiting the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa Indians shortly after they signed a memorandum of understanding with the state of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction promising greater integration of Native language and culture into the state’s public school curriculum.

Zunker said she congratulated tribal leaders and added, “We already have memorandums of understanding with state and federal governments; they’re called treaties.”

Zunker also emphasized the importance of having a Native person at the table during discussions among elected leaders when determining state and federal policies regarding education, health, social welfare and environmental issues.

She and her colleagues spoke about the importance of getting out the vote among Native people.

Clara Lee Pratte, Diné, national tribal engagement director for the Biden-Harris campaign, noted that up to 34 percent of eligible Native voters don’t vote. Pratte opened the meeting.

“That’s 2 million voices that go unheard,” she said.

Pratte and others ended the meeting with a call to action for Native people to register, vote and help family and community members do the same. 

Mary Annette Pember, citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is national correspondent for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @mapember. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Pember loves film, books and jingle dress dancing.

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