|Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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The 2016 elections could see big strides forward for American Indians seeking elective office. While there are several Native candidates vying for congressional seats, the real action is in state legislatures. In Minnesota, for example, seven American Indians are competing in state House and Senate races, including DFL incumbents Susan Allen (Rosebud Sioux), of Minneapolis, and Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Band of Ojibwe), of St. Louis Park.
Veteran journalist Mark Trahant has created a spreadsheet of American Indian candidates running for state legislative seats on his website (trahantreports.com). In Montana, 10 American Indian candidates are running for legislative posts; Oklahoma is a close second with nine Native candidates.
Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, has worked for both tribal and big city daily newspapers. He is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota, at Grand Forks. We talked on the phone in late October.
Getting back to Congress, there are only two American Indian members of the U.S. House: Tom Cole (Chickasaw Tribe) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee Nation), they are both Republicans from Oklahoma.
Trahant specified that the American Indian congressional caucus amounts to .037 percent – a bit more than one-third of one percent – of the body’s total membership. However, in the case of Tom Cole, who was first elected in 2002, to represent Oklahoma’s Fourth District, Trahant said he plays an influential role.
“When the issues involve tribes, and especially, tribal sovereignty, Cole has been one of the most important members in the history of Congress,” Trahant wrote in October. “What makes Cole so important? He can argue the case within the Republican caucus, and, even better, with the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian Country, but for his idea of what a conservative party should be. And that means being inclusive.”
Cole reportedly is supporting Trump for president; however, Trahant told me, “As a Republican, he’s been able to do things that others haven’t been. He’s in the leadership. The Violence Against Women Act, for example, never would have happened without Cole.”
Apparently, Trahant was referring to the 2013 extension of the law, which was opposed by a number of GOP House members because of provisions related to the jurisdiction of tribal courts and the inclusion of same-sex couples.
Asked about where the Indian vote is significant across the country, Trahant said that the “most significant for congressional districts is the Arizona First District, where [Indian voters are] more than 22 and a half percent.” That district is represented by Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who is challenging Sen. John McCain this year.
“There’s no Native candidate in that race,” Trahant added. Arizona’s First District includes the huge Navajo reservation. “I’ve written that that will be a Native seat; it’s just a question of when.”
And Trahant points to three American Indians, all Democrats, contending for U.S. House seats.
There’s Chase Iron Eyes, from Standing Rock, who’s running for No. Dakota’s lone seat in the House. Of course, the world is watching Standing Rock, which is leading the fight to protect water resources from the Dakota Access Pipeline. Asked about Iron Eyes’ chances, Trahant said, “That’s a tough one.” If there is a huge wave for Hillary Clinton, a tsunami-sized wave, perhaps Iron Eyes could go to Washington.
In a more competitive race, Denise Juneau, a Democrat, is running for Montana’s U.S. House seat. In 2008, Juneau, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes and of Blackfeet ancestry, became the first American Indian woman ever elected to an executive statewide office. She was elected to a second term as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2012.
The Daily Kos website recently reported that the House Majority PAC would invest $451,000 for TV ads on behalf of Juneau’s campaign, “signaling they think she has a shot against GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke.” Polls show a close race.
Also running for a House seat is Joe Pakootas, who could become the first former tribal leader ever elected to Congress, according to Trahant. Pakootas, the former chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes, is running as a Democrat in Washington’s Fifth District.
“I think this is going to be a record year,” Trahant concluded. “The opportunity to elect the first Native American woman to Congress is huge. People are taking advantage of it.”
In the end, Trump’s horrific crash-and-burn presidential campaign might contain a silver lining for American Indian political contenders.