Native women and access to power

Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan
Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan speaks at the inauguration ceremony at the Fitzgerald Theater Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. She is the first Native American woman to be elected to statewide office in Minnesota.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Editor’s note: August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, and racist policies kept too many women of color from the polls for decades beyond that. 

As we mark this anniversary and weigh that history, MPR News with Kerri Miller is asking: What does it mean to be a woman in America today? This series airs weekly; our conversations have looked at the role of Black women and power over time; women’s access to political power following the nomination of Sen. Kamala Harris for vice president of the Democratic ticket; and whether women can truly achieve success in a world built by men, for men.

After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, political activist and writer Zitkála-Šá — also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin — celebrated with white women who could now vote, saying “The Indian woman rejoices with you.” 

But she also reminded them to remember Native women — and men — who could not vote, along with the challenges they faced involving citizenship, treaty rights, and loss of land and traditions. While Native Americans born in the U.S. would gain citizenship under the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, some states excluded Native American voters until the early 1960s and there are places that continue to disenfranchise Native voters.

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Meanwhile, Native American women are making change both in their communities and in politics. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is the first to be elected to statewide office in Minnesota in 2018 and the second to be elected to statewide office in the U.S; the first was Denise Juneau in Montana. In addition, U.S. Representatives Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas are the first two women elected to Congress. Beyond those historic accomplishments, a record number of Native American women are running for Congress this year.

However, it’s also dangerous to be a Native woman. More than four in five Native American and Alaska Native women — and men — are victims of violence. Murder rates for Native women are reported to be more than ten times higher than the national average in some counties.

MPR News host Kerri Miller talked with a historian, Brenda Child, and a lawyer, Mary Kathryn Nagle, on Wednesday about Native women, their successes, the challenges they face and what access to power looks like — especially when you consider land rights and loss and tribal sovereignty.

A listener also asked on Twitter for book suggestions, especially for young readers.

Child suggested one of her books, “Bowwow Powwow,” for readers ages 4 to 7. The tale centers around Windy Girl, who has a vivid imagination, an uncle who tells her stories, and a dog named Itchy Boy. While attending a powwow, those three things combine into a powerful dream for Windy Girl.

Nagle, who is also a playwright, said it can be hard to find  plays for children by Native writers.

“It's a little more difficult for us, because mainstream publishing companies have not been interested in publishing works by Native playwrights,” she said, adding that interested listeners should look to works by Larissa Fasthorse and to Native Voices at the Autry, which is dedicated to works by Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and First Nations playwrights.

Both Nagle and Child also suggested American Indians in Children's Literature, which was founded by the scholar and educator Debbie Reese. It assesses how Native and Indigenous people are represented in children’s literature.


  • Brenda J. Child is Northrop Professor and former Chair of the Departments of American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is also a citizen of the Red Lake Nation.

  • Mary Kathryn Nagle is a partner at Pipestem Law and a playwright. She is also an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Correction (Aug. 26, 2020): The article originally misidentified Nagle’s association with the Cherokee Nation. The article has since been updated.