Underdogs, Daniel LaRusso, and Democrats: Denise Juneau Rocked the House

Gyasi Ross
9/6/12

I root, unabashedly, for underdogs. Growing up cheering for the Seattle Mariners, Supersonics or Seahawks will do that to you. Now, I love it when the small school, like Bradley, does incredibly well at the NCAA basketball tournament. I think I fist-pumped twenty-two times when I saw the Jason McElwain highlights on SportsCenter. Heck, when Daniel LaRusso sweeps through the All-Valley Karate Tournament to “You’re the Best Around,” I still get a little misty in the eyes. 

Most children of single mothers, I think, are predisposed to pull for the underdogs. When you’ve seen the struggle firsthand, it’s just slightly easier to pull for single moms who are showing that, of course they can accomplish exactly the same goals as their non-parenting sisters and brothers! When you’ve witnessed it, it’s just slightly easier to love seeing the poor kid who does not allow his or her poverty to be a handicap. You gain just a bit more empathy when you see people make small miracles and go further than other people thought that they could.

Make no mistake: Native people are still underdogs to the United States political process. Native people weren’t citizens of the US until 1924 (and even that did not give citizenship to all Natives). In some states, Natives weren’t formally allowed to vote until 1957. This doesn’t even include de facto prohibitions on Native voting rights such as ID laws, polling/candidate information that didn’t include Native language assistance, and inaccessible polling locations. But Native people have made up a lot of ground in short period of time.

The current Democratic Convention bears witness to that. From the hundreds of Natives attending the Convention as observers, to the 161 Natives attending the Convention as delegates—Native people are showing that we acclimate quickly and can be proficient in this political game. We see it in Native people serving on the Obama Delegation Committee members as well as in the dozens of Native candidates who are running for various local and state offices across the United States. We’re learning the ropes. One of the strongest pieces of evidence of Native people’s ascent within the political infrastructure is the rising star of Denise Juneau, a powerful young educator of Mandan, Hidatsa and Blackfeet ancestry. She is running for re-election as Montana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She rocked it last night at the Democratic National Convention.

Confidently, Ms. Juneau walked on the same stage as all of the powerful non-underdog politicians and gave a spellbinding speech that told a bit about her background, her beliefs, and why she supports President Obama (not coincidentally Obama is also an underdog as the child of a single mother). It was particularly powerful because Denise is a woman from the Blackfeet Reservation; very few folks from any reservation ever get on such a large and public stage—it’s even less frequent that women from large and impoverished reservations ever gets to be on those kinds of stages. Like many Northern Plains reservations, unemployment there hovers around 70%, socio-economic issues abound, and let’s be honest, there are places where it’s difficult to get your footing and to really get ahead. There are plenty of talented people on our reservations, yet because so many of these homelands are so remote, so off-the-grid that the many times the talents get overlooked and seem to simply fade into obscurity.

We are underdogs; but of course we can overcome with hard work, prayer and opportunity. And that’s why Ms. Juneau did not let anything stop her—no titles or prejudices. Instead, there she was—on the same stage that Bill Clinton would be on later the same evening. On the same stage that President Obama would be on the next night. Mandan. Hidatsa. Blackfeet. Beautiful. Articulate. Powerful. Indigenous. Woman. Thank you, Denise. Please visit Denise’s website at juneauforkids.com

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