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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

Former vice president and the presumptive nominee Joe Biden says he will announce his running mate before Aug. 1. He has said it will be a woman. And a lot of the speculation says it will be a woman of color.

There are lists of candidates being vetted including Sens. Kamala Harris, Tammy Baldwin, Tammy Duckworth and Elizabeth Warren, Govs. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Gina Raimondo, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Susan Rice is another possibility. She has deep government experience including representing the United States at the United Nations.

Of course there are more names than that. The Biden campaign has been successful at keeping its selection process a mystery.

Yet none of the lists include a Native American woman. And the thing is, a Native woman could be the smart choice.

Why? Because Native Americans know how to win these days from the football front office to the Supreme Court; there is a hot hand at play.

Then there is the math: Yes Native Americans are a tiny minority -- roughly 2 percent of the population -- but Native voters could make a difference in at least six states, four of which Donald Trump won four years ago. (Those four states: Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan total of 52 electoral votes. Add Nevada and Minnesota, and the total reaches 68 electoral votes.)

And what kind of voter turnout would there be to carry those six states? There is a story here.

In 2014, a rookie WNBA basketball player, Shoni Schimmel, was on the all-star ballot. She did not even start for her team, the Atlanta Dream, yet she captured the imagination of Indian Country (and a lot of other people). The “turnout” for that election was amazing, and Schimmel ended up taking second place, beating far more established WNBA players with name identification. It was a social media election -- the ideal landscape for a dedicated Native community. (And the result: Schimmel was the game’s Most Valuable Player, scoring 29 points, eight assists and memorable play after play.)

Normally a WNBA election would not be relevant to a presidential contest. But think about the landscape in 2020. The pandemic election. Most of the campaign will be on social media, where a dedicated community can make a difference.

That’s the “why.” What about the who?

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Rep. Sharice Davids listen to the speaker at the lunch.

Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation, and Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, and a Democrat from Kansas.

Peggy Flanagan

First up: the social media-savvy Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation, from Minnesota. Flanagan is the first Native woman to win office in any state as the second in command (and only the second to be elected to any state constitutional office.) As her running mate, Gov. Tim Walz, put it when he announced the selection of Flanagan: “Peggy’s vast knowledge and expertise will be something I rely on daily.” The two met in 2005 when Walz attended a training session with Flanagan as the teacher. “She taught him how to knock on doors during his first congressional run,” the Walz campaign said at the time.

And the lessons continue. Flanagan’s leadership during the aftermath of George Floyd’s death is a lesson in statecraft. She told National Public Radio that “‘Minnesota nice’ too often means that we gloss over the deep inequities that exist in our state … We've got a really incredible state - if you're White. If you are a person of color, if you are Indigenous, if you are an immigrant or refugee, the opposite is true. There are historical, entrenched disparities in education and health care and housing and wealth in nearly every single aspect of life here.”

Flanagan said those inequities are heartbreaking, and it makes her angry.

“As a Native American woman, it is not lost on me that I work in a system that was created, in many ways, to eliminate and erase me and our community as a whole. So I'm not interested in just making policy change here and there,” she told NPR. And that includes going after white supremacy. “And folks say, ‘Oh, gosh, don't talk about racism; oh, gosh, that is, you know, incendiary language,’ like, white supremacy. It is what the state has been built on, and unless we tackle it in a really aggressive way, we are not going to see the systematic change that we need.”

Flanagan is also an expert at social media. Just this week she gave a shout out to the Supreme Court on the McGirt case, “SCOTUS reaffirmed what we’ve always known: Treaties are the supreme Law of the Land.” And she was critical of the decision that took away Obamacare coverage for birth control. “Your reproductive healthcare should not be up to the religious beliefs of your employer,” she tweeted.

Republicans already see Flanagan as a threat (even to the country). A tweet last week said it was outrageous that she would “smear Mount Rushmore as a ‘symbol of white supremacy.’"

Deb Haaland

The second Native American who ought to be on any list for vice presidential consideration is Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, a Democrat from New Mexico.

Haaland was a co-chair of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, and she could build a bridge between the Biden campaign and what was the Warren campaign. She was recently appointed to the Democratic Party’s platform committee. When that happened, she told the Albuquerque Journal, “It’s no secret, I know what it is like to live paycheck-to-paycheck. … I know what it is like to piece together health care. I know what it is like to be on food stamps. I’m the daughter of two veterans.”

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She’s only serving her first term in Congress, but she has been a state party chairman and knows the mechanics of the Democratic Party.

Haaland is also quick to reach a larger audience on social media. This week she tweeted: “First, Trump failed in America’s response to the #Covid19 pandemic. Now he’s threatening to withhold funding if schools don’t reopen for in-person schooling. We will not let Trump play politics and games with our children’s health.”

And she is already on the GOP warning list. A recent tweet from the New Mexico party dismissed her as a climate “alarmist.”

New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, speaks with the Warren campaign staff and supporters about her support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren running for president in the 2020 election in Sioux City, Iowa, in August 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Val Nurr’araaluk Davidson

Both Flanagan and Haaland are experienced campaigners who would immediately contribute to a presidential candidate. The third person on my list has campaigned, but her strength is experience in government. That’s Alaska’s former Lt. Governor Val Nurr’araaluk Davidson, Orutsararmiut Native Council.

Davidson is president of Alaska Pacific University.

(Related: Newscast with guest Valerie Davidson)

What she could bring to a White House team is the experience of actually running a large government organization, Alaska’s Department of Health and Human Services. She is an expert in health care (including Native health) and can explain in everyday terms why a government spends X on this and not Y on that. She could make Medicaid cool again.

As television station KTUU once said: “Valerie Davidson is Alaska's version of a rock star. Well-liked and respected, she's often stopped in public by people for a hug or chat. The 51-year-old Yup-ik from Southwest Alaska first made headlines when she was just an 18-year-old college student who spoke out against alcohol abuse in villages.”

Not only that. Davidson would be the only national candidate ever who can do a seal call.

There are many other Native women who merit consideration. Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, could be the first millennial to run for vice president. Or look to the women who already lead tribal governments because they navigate on a daily basis issues as complicated as those of any governor or legislator. National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, Quinault, is but one example.

The Vice Presidency

There is a curious relationship between Native Americans and the vice presidency. Charles Curtis, Kaw, was elected vice president with Herbert Hoover and served from 1929 to 1933. He was one of the oldest men to ever serve in that office, beginning his term at 69 years old.

And Native American women have run for vice president three times.

The first was LaDonna Harris, Comanche, who was on the Citizen Party’s ticket with Barry Commoner in 1980. It was the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide, and Barry Commoner was sort of a Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders. The campaign called out the structural inequity within the Democratic Party and said people power was the ideal. Commoner and Harris focused on environmental issues (long before the words “global warming” or “climate change” were in public discourse). And the Citizens Party platform demanded that science be the determinate for solving environmental challenges.

“As a Comanche woman fighter, I’m proud to be a part of this party,” Harris said. “The traditions of my people have always held to the unity of the oppressed. That is why I want to show that we care about the problems of Chicanos, the Blacks, women, the elderly and the poor.”

Winona LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe, joined Ralph Nader on the Green Party Ticket in 2000 and again in 2004.

A remarkable and prescient line the day LaDuke announced her candidacy. She was asked about why a Native woman from rural Minnesota should even be considered? “I would question the inverse,” she responded. “Can men of privilege … who do not feel the impact of policies on forests, children or their ability to breast-feed children … actually have the compassion to make policy that is reflective of the interests of others? At this point, I think not.”

Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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