|Written by Jon Lurie,
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When Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe) attended her first committee hearing at the State Capitol she remembers the feeling of dread that swept over her. She had arrived in the chamber to testify on behalf of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, of which she was the executive director. Her goal: to convince legislators to raise the minimum wage so that working families across Minnesota could put food on the table.
On the wall behind the panel of representatives hung a painting showing the aftermath of an 1862 battle, in which the bodies of felled Dakota warriors lay strewn about a field. It was a chilling reminder of the consequences of starvation, and a message, Flanagan says, that Native American people are not welcome in the halls of government.
As the newest member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Flanagan, 35, aims to change that. The longtime community organizer, who grew-up with her single mother in St. Louis Park (where she lives today with her husband and two-year-old daughter), says the time is now for the voices of Native people to be heard in St. Paul. The multi-talented politician, whose resume far outpaces her age, has used her voice for nearly two decades to push for change, sometimes in surprising ways.
JL: You recently sang the Star Spangled Banner at a Vikings-Packers game at TCF Stadium.
PF: I did. It was pretty awesome. Pretty scary. And the halftime show was really great; it was a bunch of powwow dancers and drummers. It was really fun to see so many Native people on the field. Frankly, the NFL needs to do all it can to try to honor Native folks.
JL: Do you think Native participation in pregame and halftime shows has an impact on the NFL’s willingness to change derogatory team names?
PF: The NFL, and Washington team owner Dan Snyder in particular, are motivated by money. Snyder’s dug-in in much the same way that we’ve seen people like Donald Trump do lately. But I think eventually it’s going to change as people see just how inhumane it is. By having Native folks be mascots we’re being portrayed as less than human and when you portray people as less than human beings it’s easy then, when it comes to making policy, to not treat folks in a way that provides what they need to thrive.
JL: Speaking of Trump, as you look at the current presidential campaign, what concerns do you have about the national political conversation?
PF: I think many people of color knew the sentiments expressed by Trump were just below the surface in this country. Now folks who are racist have a figurehead who gives voice to their feelings. He gives people license for really appalling behavior. As this country changes demographically – soon the United States will be majority people of color – folks in dominant culture are holding on and are afraid. I appreciate those republicans who are saying that’s not who we are and are calling Trump out on it. I appreciate, on the democratic side, that Clinton, O’Malley, and Sanders have continuously denounced, and continuously lifted-up communities of color.
JL: How does it feel to be one of only two people in the Minnesota legislature who really understand what’s going on in our Native communities?
PF: I think [Representative] Susan Allen (DFL-District 62B) and I have a responsibility to teach our colleagues about American Indian people and our experiences. The fact that there are only two of us Native folks means there’s a lot of opportunity to build bridges. I remember the first committee hearing I attended. I walked into one of the senate hearing rooms to testify on increasing the minimum wage while representing the Children’s Defense Fund. On the wall there was a big painting of the Battle of Brown County. It showed a bunch of dead Indians laying in a field. I felt like, wow, I hope they didn’t just put this up for me. These kinds of racist images are all around the Capitol. For me the most important thing we need to do as Native people is teach others about who we are. We are contemporary people. We exist in many walks of life. There are eleven nations in the state of Minnesota and folks should know that; we are the birthplace of the American Indian Movement, and we’ve got a very significant Indian population in the state of Minnesota.
JL: How does your work with the Children’s Defense Fund inform your agenda in the legislature?
PF: For American Indian children I think the most pressing challenges are access to early education, and high rates of poverty. We know that when families’ income increases that child outcomes are better. We’ve got a lot of challenges, but we’ve also got lots of incredible, resilient families, and a really solid foundation upon which to build. There’s lots of disparities, but I think the solution to those disparities oftentimes live within our own communities; We don’t necessarily get invited to the table when decisions are being made for us. So if anything can come out of my service in the legislature I hope that it’s providing a seat at the table, and having Native folks come to the Capitol and literally hash out the issues that affect them.
JL: Police violence has been in the spotlight in Indian Country and in African-American communities. Do you plan on using your new platform to challenge police brutality?
PF: The fact is people of color in Minnesota face institutional racism at many levels. A couple of days ago a study came out on the Metro Transit police that found African-Americans and Native Americans are being cited and arrested at much higher levels than others. Native people and African-Americans are in this together; we need to figure out how to stand together and come up with solutions across communities. I am on the house public safety committee, and I see that as a great opportunity to bring perspective from our community to the table. It’s my goal to see that if our kids are in trouble they run towards the police and not away from them.
JL: In a democracy we’re not used to seeing people run for office unopposed. What was that like?
PF: When the filing deadline came I sat and clicked the refresh button on the secretary of state’s website for a long time; I thought [when no one else filed to run for the seat] there was an error. We made the decision that we were going to run a strong campaign either way. I felt it was my responsibility to let the folks of my district know I was going to earn every vote. I knocked on doors, called people, sent mail throughout the community. That was part of my commitment to personal integrity. I grew up, so to speak, on the Wellstone for Senate campaign and saw that relationship building is how you do this work, and being out in the field is how you do this work, and how you earn people’s trust. Something Paul Wellstone always said, “Always run like you’re ten points behind,” and that’s what we did. The reality is, I have to keep running. This was a special election and I’m up again in 2016. I am almost certain to have a challenger in 2016. I don’t think that anybody expected an American Indian woman running in the suburbs to be unopposed, but we worked really hard, and I’m really proud of my team and what we were able to accomplish.
JL: Companies like Enbridge and Polymet are trying to crisscross the state with pipelines, and dig new mines that are threatening watersheds and encroaching on Native lands. How do tribes best counter these corporations?
PF: I have been clear that for myself personally as an Ojibwe woman and mother – but also what I’ve heard from my constituents – is that Minnesotans believe in protecting our land and water. That’s why people live here in the first place. Indian or non-Indian, we live in a really beautiful state, and to throw it all away for short-term financial gain is really troubling to me. I also think we need to be really conscious of the fact that for people on the Range and in greater Minnesota the lack of jobs is a serious issue. Regular working class folks lose their jobs when mines and construction projects shut down. We have to be careful to remember that victories for the environmental movement often come hand in hand with real human beings losing jobs. We have to come up with solutions for people in greater Minnesota to be able to live and work in their communities, and I hope to be able to dig in on some of that work. But it’s completely troubling to me that we would throw away who we are as Indian people, as Minnesotans, for temporary gain. Our tribes need to exercise their sovereignty to protect what we have. Without sovereignty Native people don’t exist.
JL: As you look ahead to the new year, what makes you hopeful?
PF: What really gives me hope are young people. Young people of color, young people who are allies, who realize that their lives are wrapped up in the lives of all people. It’s the young organizers who are standing on the shoulders of many people who have come before them. What also gives me hope is my nearly three-year-old daughter, Siobhan. My kiddo is going to be able to come with me and sit on my lap on the House Floor and see that that is an option for her – that she can run for office, she can be a teacher, she can be a doctor. As a young Ojibwe woman the sky’s the limit for her. And that is what makes me hopeful, but that is also what drives me – that every kid, regardless of where they come from, has that same opportunity to thrive. Unfortunately, in Minnesota, that’s not the case right now.
For more info, see: www,neighborsforpeggy.org