It’s such a simple thing: Every citizen should have a voice at the table when decisions are made. It’s a powerful notion because no democracy can sustain itself unless all of its people, all of those who have a stake in the outcome, are included.
But that idea remains illusive. And never more important.
What does a seat at the table look like? It means more Native Americans win election to office as governors, members of Congress, U.S. Senators, mayors, county commissions, judges, members of state legislatures, and, yes, why not, even the White House. Indian Country deserves more of a voice, both in terms of fairness and as elected representation that’s based on our share of the population. Wait. That’s fairness, too. (Previous: Indian Country wins with more representation in the states.)
Then there are elected offices that we don’t think about, yet are important, and by definition, are that seat at the table. Claudia Kauffman is running for such a job, Commissioner for the Port of Seattle. This is a $650 million a year public business that manages Seattle’s seaport, airport, and a portfolio of real estate. It has its own police and fire departments. Tribes and native people are impacted by port decisions ranging from cleaning up rivers and salmon habitat to regulating oil drilling rigs that berth in Seattle on their way to Arctic waters.
Kauffman grew up in Seattle’s Beacon Hill as the youngest of seven children. “I come from a family with a long history of giving back to the community,” Kauffman says on her web site. “A family with strong and well grounded values and connection to our community, our environment, and our future. I will work to bring trust back into government, to provide leadership in the direction of the Port of Seattle, and bring family wage jobs.”
A couple of years ago Kauffman told the port commission that it could use her perspective as a working mother, a small business owner, and a community leader. “My record of public service includes working closely with state, federal and tribal governments, which I believe, makes my experience unique and beneficial to the Port of Seattle Commission,” she wrote. In the state Senate Kauffman said she worked on transportation, international trade and economic development. “I led the Senate in the successful passage of the MicroEnterprise Development in which we funded training for small business owners … my work with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe provides critical connections, understanding and perspective.”
In her campaign brochure, Kauffman said she will build on her tribal contacts and strengthen ties with the 29 tribes in the state. Tribes “are large employers,” Kauffman said. “In 2010, they paid $1.3 billion in wages and purchased $2.4 billion in goods and services.”
This will be a challenging race. She’s running for Commissioner Position One, against a well-funded incumbent, John W. Creighton III. Also on the August primary ballot will be Ryan Calkins and Bea Querido-Rico. (This is a non partisan election for voters of King County, Washington.)
Creighton is the longest serving port commissioner and one of the commission’s best fundraisers.
But Kauffman is no stranger to that world. She raised nearly $300,000 in her bid for the Senate and she was one of those candidates who worked incredibly hard knocking on every door at every opportunity. She also has a political organization — a network of people who are willing to work extraordinarily hard to win an election.
Debra Haaland filed paperwork to run for Congress from New Mexico. If elected, she would be the first Native American woman to ever serve in that body. And what makes this news especially cool: This is a winnable seat.
Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, has served the past two years as the state’s Democratic Party chair (where she successfully retired the party’s debts). She has also been a candidate for lieutenant governor and chaired the Laguna Development Corporation and has been a tribal administrator. Her Twitter profile says: “A proud UNM Lobo mom; Pueblo woman; Marathon runner; Gourmet cook.” She also tweeted: “Thank you for the outpouring of support! Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks … and is using the hashtag, #Deb4Congress and her web site is found at debforcongress.com.
“I’ve spent my life advocating for the underrepresented, advancing progressive values, and working tirelessly to help elect Democrats up and down the ballot,” Haaland said in a statement. “I want to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, and it would be an honor to be that voice for our communities, our families, and for all of us.”
New Mexico’s First Congressional District includes Albuquerque and the north-central portion of the state. It’s currently represented by Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, who won with 65 percent of the vote and is now running for governor. The seat is rated “solid” or “safe” for the Democrats by several political reports.
Since this will be an “open” seat there will be a lot of competition. So the test for Haaland will be a primary election in June of next year. That means she will need early campaign money. Rep. Grisham raised $1.8 million for her re-election in 2016, however, the last time a Republican held this seat, former Rep. Heather Wilson, she raised and spent nearly $5 million.
As a former party chair, Haaland should be well-suited to take on the fundraising challenges. She has basically been raising money — albeit for others — for the past two years. She was the first Native American woman to serve as the party chair.
Former Montana State Sen. Carol Juneau once said that she considered state office because that’s where she could make a difference. (She is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Tribe but was living in the Blackfeet Nation). The year was 1998. She was first appointed to the legislature to replace a man who left office to take up a seat on the Blackfeet Tribal Council and then she became one of two Native American members of the Montana House of Representatives. In February of 1999 she made the case to the House Democratic Caucus that Montana’s American Indians ought to have better representation, because tribal people “are citizens of the state of Montana, the same as any other citizens. I’d like to see that Indian people and Indian tribes in Montana aren’t left outside of everything.”
Today Native Montanans are not left out.
The state has the most Native Americans elected as legislators in the country, three members of the Senate and six members of the House. More than that: Montana has elected more women than any other state: Four of the nine legislators.
And though she is not currently in office, Denise Juneau (Carol’s daughter) was the only Native American woman to ever win a state constitutional office, she served two terms as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as well as a congressional candidate.
The Montana story has a national application, too. A higher percentage of Native American women serve in state legislatures than do women nationally.
Women make up about 25 percent of state legislatures. But a little more than 40 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native legislators are female. The numbers break down this way: There are at least 67 Native American legislators out of 7,383 seats in 50 states or nearly one percent. (If you think that’s bad: Congress only has Native representation pegged at one-third of one percent.) Of those 67 seats, at least 25 of them are held by Native American women. So another way to look at the data: There are 1,800 legislative seats held by women; that works out to a Native representation of 1.4 percent.
There is still a long way to go to reach parity with the population, but it’s much better than just about any other category in the body politic. For example: A recent report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows more than 570 elected tribal leaders and, in that group, just under 25 percent are women.
The Native delegation in Minnesota is eighty percent female; its own caucus. (You could even argue that women are 100 percent of the delegation because the other tribal member in the legislature, Republican Rep. Steve Green, is White Earth Ojibwe, but he rarely champions or mentions tribal issues.)
A recent article in the Minnesota Post was headlined, “Something new for the Minnesota Legislature: A caucus of first Minnesotans.” Rep. Susan Allen, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was first elected in a special election. “Before Allen was elected in 2012, only nine legislators in state history who self-identified as American Indian served in the Legislature — all men — and most of them were elected back when Minnesota was still considered a territory,” the Post said.
Allen told the Post: “You can be a part of an institution that is predominantly white and not have to lose your identity. I can be here without having to lose my identity to do it, and previous generations, I don’t think they had that.”
The Post explained several reasons why it’s so important for a legislature to hear from Native American legislators and for those elected representatives to keep an eye out for bills that impact the Native community.
One anecdote in particular was powerful. The Post said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Poden, a Standing Rock descendent, was giving American Indian students a tour of the Capitol. She could see they were overwhelmed. “I said, come back again and again and bring other Natives to the Capitol so that you’re not nervous, so that you’re not intimidated, so that some day you’ll be sitting in this office doing the work that we’re doing,” she said in the Post. “You could almost see the light bulb go off in their head: I could do this?”
Arizona is another state where most of the Native delegation — three out of four — are women. This fits Arizona. Its legislature is third in the nation for the highest percentage of women at nearly 40 percent.
New Mexico is the only state where the male-female balance is 50/50. And five states, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, have only a woman representing Native Americans in the legislature. Conversely, Colorado, North Carolina, and North Dakota have only one Native American man serving in the legislature. Alaska (88 percent) and Oklahoma (86 percent) are primarily represented by men. South Dakota has three American Indian men in the legislature and no women.
Idaho’s Rep. Paulette Jordan, Couer d’Alene, is not only the only Native American in the legislature, she’s the only Democrat elected north of Boise. She told the Spokane Spokesman Review: “How can we continue to fight for balance in the state, with the overwhelming odds?That’s part of the beauty of our connection to our ancestors. We know that they’re always walking with us, guiding us and helping us in this lifetime … the fact that we’re still here – we still have the beauty, the inner identity, our connection to everything, to the land, to the earth itself, to our relatives both tribal and non-tribal alike.”
I don’t have the total numbers for Native Americans elected at the city and county level. Yet. (Early drafts of spreadsheets are here and here. Please do let me know who should be on these lists.)
But this much is clear: Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, currently represents more citizens than any Native woman in America (more than 90,000 people live in her North Seattle district). She was elected to Seattle’s City Council in November of 2015. In an interview with the Tacoma Art Museum she talked about her idea about the role of women: “While men were in charge of external power, women had interior, spiritual, and domestic power. They were the centers of the community.” That’s exactly how she’s approached her job on the council. She’s argued for community services from sidewalks to child car. On Juarez’ blog she reports: “In this budget I advocated for and secured $4.4 million in targeted investments in our community including improvements in human services, construction of sidewalks, and neighborhood planning initiatives. Ultimately, I achieved a 94% success rate for my specific District 5 budget priorities.”
Denise Juneau, of course, is the only Native American woman to hold statewide office (twice). She actually earned thousands of more votes from Montanans than did Barack Obama in 2012. (Previously: Denise Juneau’s eight years of promise.) She had a remarkable run even though last year fell short of being the first Native woman to ever win a seat in Congress.
In addition to Juneau, at least seven Native American women have run for Congress starting in 1988. Jeanne Givens, a Couer d’Alene tribal member in Idaho was the first. Then Ada Deer, Menominee, in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free, Choctaw, in Oklahoma, and Diane Benson, Tlingit, in Alaska, Three Native women have run in Arizona: Mary Kim Titla, White Mountain Apache, Arizona Rep. Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Victoria Steele, Seneca.
It’s so long past the time to erase that phrase, “ever” or for that matter, “the first” when it comes to Native women in office. And I suspect the 2018 elections will be a remarkable opportunity for more Native Americans to win office. It will be a referendum on President Donald J. Trump and his policies.
It’s also worth noting that Native American women have run for the vice presidency three times.
LaDonna Harris, Comanche, was on the ticket with Barry Commoner for the Citizen Party in 1980 (the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide). This was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders. The party highlighted the structural limits of the Democratic Party and blamed corporate America for the excess. The antidote was people power.
What’s interesting about the campaign now is that Commoner and Harris focused on environmental issues (long before the words global warming or climate change were in public discourse). Get this: The Citizens Party platform cited the role of science in managing complex 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. When LaDuke announced her candidacy she was asked whether a Native woman from rural Minnesota should even be considered? “I would argue yes,” she said. “In fact, I would question the inverse. 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.”