By Camille Erickson
On Nov. 6, 2018, Minnesotans elected Peggy Flanagan to be the state’s first American Indian lieutenant governor, and the first American Indian ever elected to statewide executive office in U.S. history.
How she got there: On an overcast Saturday in October 2017, then-gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz (DFL-Mankato) and his running mate Peggy Flanagan (DFL-St. Louis Park) launched their campaign for the governorship of Minnesota at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, two days before Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“We did that with great intention,” Lt. Gov.-Elect Flanagan said in an interview soon after winning the race for lieutenant governor. Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe) a two-term state representative, prominently ran alongside Gov.-Elect Walz to succeed Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration. Together, the two built a platform hinged on addressing issues impacting Minnesota’s 11 Tribal Nations and urban American Indian communities.
In Flanagan’s eyes, Native American women have been underrepresented in U.S. local, state and federal government for far too long. “It’s time for us to step up as leaders,” she said. “We’re going to move policies that reflect our life experiences and expertise.”
The soon-to-be lieutenant governor also noted that she stood on a robust legacy of Native American women in leadership who paved a path for her. “It’s important to remember that Native American women have been leading in our community since time immemorial,” she said.
In this year’s midterm elections, 52 Native American candidates ran for political office across the country, according to Indian Country Today. Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) won the seat in the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas, and Debra Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) will lead New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. They will be the first Native American women to serve in U.S. Congress.
Flanagan comes to the new position equipped with a strong community and political organizing background. Before entering political office, Flanagan served as the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund. After becoming a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2015, she consistently advocated for policies that supported children, especially children of color, Indigenous children and their families. She plans to bring this focus of uplifting children to the state’s executive branch, she said.
Among their myriad agenda items, Walz and Flanagan want to advance culturally-contextualized school curriculums that include the history of Native people, maintain BIE school funding, and expand public assistance programs to help keep families stable, among other commitments.
With each vision comes a promise to respect sovereign nations and work in collaboration with Tribal governments.
Throughout their campaign, the candidates visited every reservation and the urban American Indian community to build relationships with leaders. Flanagan said they intend to partner with Tribal Nations using “a thorough process of meaningful consultation” each step of the way.
“Our administration will strive to ensure that we are honoring treaty rights, respecting Tribal sovereignty and continuing to work with tribes in a government-to-government relationship,” she added.
Flanagan appears to already be making strides to keep this promise. She now leads the One Minnesota Transition Advisory Board – a group of 30 leaders across the political spectrum who will help advise the development of the Walz-Flanagan administration and budget. She ensured that there were Native voices – both Ojibwe and Dakota – on the board. She hopes all Minnesotans see themselves reflected in the group.
“We have people who are part of the labor movement and folks from Greater Minnesota. We have Tribal leaders, leaders in higher education and the nonprofit sector, all sitting at the same table,” she said.
The advisory board has a sizeable task on their hands: they must hire over 20 state agency commissioners and establish a preliminary two-year budget by early next year. The new team will need a strong administration and a well-developed plan to carry out their ambitious agendas.
The process of building the One Minnesota Transition Advisory Board in many ways mirrors the Walz-Flanagan campaign approach. In conversations along the campaign trail, constituents could hear the candidates in all corners of Minnesota making the promise to build a transparent and responsive administration that reflected the communities they aimed to serve.
Flanagan frequently used words like “self-determination” and “co-creation” to illustrate her intention of inviting people most directly impacted by policies to the decision-making table. Instead of expecting people to come to the State Capitol, she preferred to meet constituents where they are at, she said. “We are engaging with people in their own communities – where they live and where they feel most comfortable,” Flanagan said.
Despite the fanfare since the election, Flanagan contends that the historic win is really not about her. “I actually think it’s more about the people who have come before me who have cleared a path and allowed for me to be here,” she said.
Moving forward, she takes to heart the task of ensuring that more and more Native women and girls see a pathway to leadership.
“I think that when Native women… get involved and engaged in electoral politics or local, state and federal government, those governments change,” she said. “We [lead] in such a way that is about caring for our children and our elders and thinking towards those next seven generations.”