Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan and Congressman Tim Walz team up in Minnesota. Flanagan is running for Lt. Governor and Walz Governor as Democratic Farmer Labor Party candidates. (Campaign photo)


Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

It’s easy to get discouraged reading the news or looking at the political landscape. It’s a frightening mess: Mass murder, climate change, an election system that at its roots is unfair, and on and on.

But the thing is every new challenge is matched by opportunity. Our legacy — and the definition of legacy, is a gift — are the platforms where Native leaders come together and solve problems. The world of politics is one such platform. And so often it may seem like it’s only a far off promise, but yet, that legacy kicks and we see a new generation answer.

Too much philosophy? Ok. I’ll get to the news: Rep. Peggy Flanagan is running on Congressman Tim Walz’ gubernatorial ticket for Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor party. Gubernatorial? That’s a funny word. It’s from the Latin gubernator, common in the 1500s, but pretty much only used by journalists these days. Yet such a stuffy word is also a good metaphor because of what Flanagan’s candidacy represents on at least two levels.

First, it’s another breakthrough race (think back to that word legacy). As a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Flanagan would be the first American Indian woman to serve as a state Lt. Governor and would be the highest ranking Native woman ever in a state constitutional office. (The only other one is Denise Juneau when she was the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

The second level shatters the word “gubernatorial.” Back in the day, well, pretty much since the 1500s, the power of office was represented by a single man making big decisions. There is even an explanation of history, the Great Man Theory, that aligns a singular moment with a Napoleon or a Winston Churchill. But Walz and Flanagan would be different (a product of our times) and the Lt. Governor’s office represents a partnership. Partnerships and involving more people is how the best teams will govern from here on out. 

“Peggy’s vast knowledge and expertise will be something I rely on daily,” Walz said in his campaign news release. “Walz and Flanagan first met at Camp Wellstone in 2005, where she taught him how to knock on doors during his first Congressional run. They’ve maintained a friendship ever since.”

She taught him. Three words that ought to redefine politics.

The idea of a partnership in governing is recent but growing more common. Bill Clinton and Al Gore changed the nature of the presidency. It’s certainly true now in Alaska where Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott swap issues and sentences with ease. (Walker and Mallott are also up for re-election next year.) But these are all bros. It’s still a boys club.

Flanagan represents the challenge — and opportunity — for political representation by (and for) Native American women. This country has never elected a Native American woman to lead a state, or even as a Lt. Governor. And we still have never elected a Native American woman to Congress despite some really fantastic candidates. That, too, could be a barrier to fall in this election cycle. If you look at the number of elected Native American women across the country in legislatures, and in county governments, or in city hall, then you see the possibility of a slow wave, real change unfolding over time. (Previous: She Represents.) It’s not a question of if … only how long do we wait?

There are two groups within Indian Country that are underrepresented by a lot, women and urban residents. Most Native Americans live in cities and suburbs yet most of the elected representation comes from reservation and rural communities. We need both. In the Minnesota legislature, and in public life, Flanagan has been that voice for urban Native Americans.

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Back to that word, legacy.

Flanagan is prepared to govern. She already knows how government works, and, more important, why government matters. She’s currently the state representative from District 46A, representing St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Plymouth and Medicine Lake. She is a partner in the Management Center, and has trained progressive candidates on how to run for office through Wellstone Action. She is the former director of the Children’s Defense Fund – Minnesota.

Flanagan was a speaker at Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia where she read a letter to her daughter, Siobhan. “Because, despite everything that has happened to our people, and no matter what Donald Trump says, we are still here. And I want you to grow up with our people’s values: Honoring our elders, showing gratitude to our warriors, cherishing our children as gifts from the Creator.”

Legacy.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

ICYMI: My first audio election special is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

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