Native American women making political strides this year

Peggy Flanagan and Donna Bergstrom.
Jeff Johnson's running mate Donna Bergstrom (right) is a member of the Red Lake Band, while White Earth tribal member Peggy Flanagan (left) is running with Democrat Tim Walz.
Lacey Young | MPR News and Derek Montgomery for MPR News

There's a buzz in Native American country this year that you don't typically hear around elections.

"It's very exciting when you think about these women running for elective office, how cool is that?" exclaimed Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. "That's pretty cool."

Benjamin has reason to be excited. She's also one of the founders of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations, or WEWIN, a national group started 14 years ago to train and mentor women for leadership roles.

"It's history in the making for us in Native American country with our women stepping forward to assume huge responsibilities on behalf of all of us," said Benjamin.

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It's a virtual certainty that Minnesota will make history this year by electing the state's first American Indian woman as lieutenant governor.

Republican Jeff Johnson's running mate Donna Bergstrom is a member of the Red Lake Band, while White Earth tribal member Peggy Flanagan is running with Democrat Tim Walz.

And they are part of a trend. Native American women are showing up on ballots across the country this year in unprecedented numbers, according to Mark Trahant.

"This year has just been extraordinary," said Trahant, editor of the national native news website, Indian Country Today, and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes of Idaho.

He's been watching the rise of Native American women politicians for the past six years and says this will be the year of firsts.

"You have two, maybe three native women getting elected to Congress. There's never been a single native woman in Congress. There are also two party nominees for governor," said Trahant.

Trahant says the current wave of native women candidates includes Deb Haaland in New Mexico and Sharice Davids in Kansas, both Democrats running for Congress. Two native women are party nominees for governor; Democrat Paulette Jordan in Idaho and Republican Andria Tupola in Hawaii.

Some women point to the Standing Rock pipeline protest as their catalyst for running.

But Trahant points out that native political interest has been growing for years. Indigenous people in the U.S. have long been under-represented in government. But native women and men have been slowly gaining ground in many state legislative bodies.

All of the Native American women running this year have impressive leadership experience, and can bring a new perspective to the political process, said Trahant.

Jill Doerfler thinks those native politicians can also raise the public consciousness.

"There's still, in the American imagination, a kind of stereotype of American Indians and some deep-seated stereotypes that continue to exist," said Doerfler, who grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northwest Minnesota, and is a professor and the department head of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

She says Bergstrom and Flanagan each bring very different ideas to their respective gubernatorial tickets. But both, she says, communicate those ideas well.

"Just by being out there and sharing their ideas and platform, they're raising the visibility so that Minnesotans and Americans can see contemporary American Indians in a realistic fashion," said Doerfler.

The growth of Native American women in politics is no accident, said Doerfler, but the result of years of grassroots efforts to develop a new generation of leaders.

And Wayne Ducheneaux sees the trend reflecting a changing philosophy in which potential leaders are looking for roles outside of tribal governments.

"Native communities are realizing that they can help effectuate change quicker and more broader if we look at all aspects of leadership," said Ducheneaux, executive director of the St. Paul-based Native Governance Center, and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.

"What's the old saying, if you're not at the table you're on the menu? I think people understand that in Indian country and that if we're not involved in these processes if we're not involved in these other forms of government our voices aren't going to be heard in our issues aren't going to be on the table," said Ducheneaux.

And Trahant thinks American Indian engagement with state and federal politics is likely to continue based on what he's seen while following native women on the campaign trail.

"The thing what just amazes me is how many little girls come up to them and want their picture taken," he said. "Seeing somebody like them out there on the campaign trail being successful, being professional, I think that has really long-term positive implications."

Correction (Aug. 20, 2018): Wayne Ducheneaux's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.