Where Native Americans hold state office: Some 70-plus elected to state legislatures in 17 states.

Who Will Be Indian Country’s Barack Obama? She’s Probably Already Elected to a State Office

Mark Trahant

At least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians serve in 17 state legislatures. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, if you look at the body of work of these state senators and representatives, you’ll find them advocating for better services, more funding and improving relationships between tribal nations and state governments. Second, state offices are a source of talent for higher elective posts, ranging from Congress to the White House. Remember it was in only 1996 when Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate.

Montana best demonstrates the growing influence of Native American voters.

Denise Juneau, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, is currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes and grew up in Browning, Montana, in the Blackfeet Nation. Juneau has a political track record. She’s already won two state-wide contests so she knows what it takes to win a House seat. This is how U.S. politics often works: A candidate wins at the state level, does a good job, and then she moves on to Congress (or is appointed to a federal post, such as Secretary of Education).

RELATED: Denise Juneau: First American Indian Congresswoman?

The Montana story is richer than Juneau alone. Some 20 years ago, Montana was much like any other state with a significant Native American population with only one or two Native Americans serving in the legislature. Then Native American candidate won in 1997. And again in 2003. And by 2007 Native Americans in Montana reached ten seats in the legislature; representing 6.6 percent of that body. Montana’s population is 7.4 percent Native American. Today there are 3 Native Americans in the Senate and 5 in the House, some 5.3 percent of the state legislature.

To put the Montana percentage in national terms: If Congress were 5.3 percent Native American, there would be 5 U.S. Senators and 21 members of the House. Even if you adjust for population, the number of Native American members of Congress would have to more than double to equal the representation in Montana. It’s telling that when Brookings Institution researched the historical demographics for members of Congress it did not even bother to measure Native Americans. There are two tribal members currently serving in Congress and, so far, this election season, there are at least seven Native American candidates for Congress.

Why is Montana the model? Hard work. Good candidates. And, litigation to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Montana had a long history of disenfranchising Native American voters. According to a voting history from the American Civil Liberties Union, a Montana 1932 law said only “taxpayers” could vote, wiping out potential voters on reservations. Another law banned polling places on reservations. The ACLU said: “The suit Windy Boy v. County of Big Horn, challenged at-large elections for the three member County Commission of Big Horn County, Montana, and two smaller school districts in the county which shared a common board of education, as diluting American Indian voting strength. … At the time the complaint was filed in 1983, no Indian, despite the fact that Indians were 41 percent of the voting age population, had ever been elected to the county commission or the school board.”

Even though Montana represents many of the best practices in Native American participation, there remain challenges such as opening more satellite voting stations on reservations. This is important in Montana because the distance between a reservation community and a county seat could be more than a hundred miles roundtrip.

There are two other reasons why the Native American electoral experience in Montana is different.

First, the 2004 election of Brian Schweitzer as governor was a game changer. “Never in Montana’s history has an entire Administration reached out to Indians to ensure they were acknowledged, respected, and most importantly, included,” Schweitzer wrote in a 2012 report to the tribes, “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” During those eight years more than 250 “First Montanans” were appointed to boards, councils, commissions and state offices, including many firsts, such as appointments to the Fish and Wildlife commission, athletic commission, building code council and health-related boards. These offices made it clear to the citizens of Montana that the state’s Native American communities were a part of the body politic instead of being relegated to a “special interest.”

A second reason, and a success story, is the community organizing work of Western Native Voice. Leading up to the 2012 election, Western Native Voice set a goal of registering 3,000 Native Americans for the primary and 5,000 for the general elections. Western Native Voice exceeded that goal by some 1,300 additional voters.

The track record of Montana Native American legislators is pretty good. According to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, this past session produced a number of innovative laws, including Medicaid expansion (a financial boost to the Indian health system) as well as laws that will improve funding for tribal colleges, support tribal languages, and streamline Indian business ventures. The record of Native American legislators was not 100 percent, but it’s likely that during the next session many of the ideas that failed to pass will be back on the agenda.

Next door to Montana, in Wyoming, there is an example of what happens when Native American voters are not organized to turn out and vote.

W. Patrick Goggles, an Arapaho, served in the legislature for a decade representing Ethete on the Wind River Reservation. “I have been able to work with the legislature for the new construction of schools,” Goggles told Wyoming Public Radio, as well as “work with the health programs and human services to insure that contracts with the tribes were in place” and negotiate tax agreements that impact the reservation community.

However in 2014 Goggles chose not to run again. In the election that followed, he was replaced by Jim Allen, a Republican non-Indian rancher. Andrea Clifford, Goggles’ niece, lost the election by 130 votes — and in a district where 65 percent of the voters are Native American. This is the classic example of a low turn-out election because Allen received fewer votes in 2014 than he did winning in 2012.

The state with the largest number of Native American legislators is Oklahoma with 14. It’s also the only state with a balance between Democrats and Republicans (8 Democrats and 6 Republicans). To put that number in perspective: Nationally of the 70 elected Native Americans in state legislatures, 58 are Democrats and 12 are Republicans.

It’s also worth noting that tribes in Maine have three automatic delegates to the legislature. The offices are similar to delegates to Congress from the District of Columbia and other U.S. Territories. The practice began in 1823. The Maine tribal delegates can serve on committees but cannot vote. According to a Maine legislative history: There was an attempt in 1939 to change delegate system and two years later the legislature “ousted the Indians entirely from the Hall of the House, their status being reduced to little better than state paid lobbyists. Since 1965, a gradual change for the better has occurred. Salaries and allowances have increased, and seating and speaking privileges were restored in 1975, after a lapse of thirty-four years.”

Across the country it’s clear that Native American representation before state governments significantly trails the population of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. There are 40 members serving in Alaska House and 20 in that state Senate. Yet only five Alaska Natives represent in the House — or 12.5 percent — and two in the Senate. Yet Alaska has the highest voting age population of Native Americans in the country, some 17 percent.

The growth of Native American voters — and elected officials — is only the beginning of a trend. We know our population is growing faster than the general population. And in many states there is already the number of voters required to build a winning election coalition that includes the Native community.

Most of the action in the decade ahead will be at the state level. If you look at the list of some 70 elected state officials it’s clear that there is a wealth of talent such as Alaska’s Sam Kito III or South Dakota’s Kevin Killer. Look across the country and you will see why the Native Americans who are serving now in state legislatures are the next generation of leaders in the Congress — and even the White House.

So if you want to know who will be Indian country’s Barack Obama, look to the states. Her name will be Paulette Jordan, Peggy Flanagan or Denise Juneau.

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.

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