A tribute to those who always imagined Native women in the Congress

By Mark Trahant
- Indian Country Today -

Congress is not quite yet a representative body: Four Native Americans in Congress equals two-thirds of one percent.

January 2nd was all about Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, the first two Native American women to be elected to the Congress of the United States.

At noon it became Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico. Photo via Twitter

But this story needs to a start a few pages back.

My friend, the late Wilma Mankiller, was the first elected chief of the Cherokee Nation. She loved telling a story about when the United States first sent a treaty negotiation team to meet with the Cherokees. One of the first questions to the United States was: “Where are your women?” Mankiller said Cherokee women often accompanied their leaders at important ceremonies and negotiations.

The logic is flawless: How can any society negotiate (or govern) with only half its people, half its logic, half its humanity?

Yet we do that. “We” as in citizens of tribal governments. “We” as in Americans. And, “we” as humans. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only three countries have legislatures that are more than fifty percent female, Rwanda, Cuba, and Bolivia. (That’s out of 193 countries.)

So as much as this new Congress is celebrated for its diversity and inclusivity, the fact is that the House of Representatives has reached a historic high by electing 102 women, or 23 percent. The Senate now has 25 women in that body, 25 percent.

And in a country that’s incredibly diverse, the Congress is made up of 317 members who are white, 55 members who are black, 44 are Hispanic, 15 members are Asian, and 4 are Native American. And eight representatives identify as LGBTQ+, including Davids.

Congress has a long way before it becomes a representative body. The four Native Americans in Congress total two-thirds of one percent. Parity with the population would be about seven members in Congress and two in the Senate.

What Congress once looked like with 100% white males. Speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon of Illinois takes the oath of office at the opening of the 59th Congress (1905—1907). Photo via Library of Congress

Women, and Indian Country, do a little better in representation in state legislatures across the country. The most recent figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that approximately 2,107 women will serve in the 50 state legislatures in 2019. It says: “Women will make up 28.5 percent of all state legislators nationwide. This represents a significant increase from the 2018 session’s ratio of 25.3 percent, and the most women elected at one time.”

Indian Country sends more women to state legislatures than the general population. In this last election, 55 new members were elected and 26 were women or 47 percent. That is up from 40 percent two years ago.

And in tribal governments, from figures from April 2017, women accounted for 25 percent of seats on councils and other tribal governing bodies. About the same as the Senate and slightly better than the House.

Yet today is historic, and it’s a required step before we reach any sort of parity in the body politic. Today there are so many women standing next to Davids and Haaland as they take their oaths of office. Both in the past and in the future.

You really see the “what’s next?” when the candidates meet with young people. Think about this: The next generation of Native American girls will grow up knowing that being a member of Congress is a possibility, even a career path. This is the new normal.

The legacy of women in politics

National Congress of American Indians President Joseph Garry and Executive Director Helen Peterson. NCAI photo

And the past? Every generation has contributed to this story. One chapter that comes to mind was the work of Helen Peterson, Cheyenne and Lakota. Most people remember her as the longtime executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. But that was sort of her second career. Before that, she was an expert in Latin America, promoting human rights for farm workers and other Latin Americans. (A wonderful context for today’s immigration and border debates.) In 1949 she represented the United States at an international conference in Peru. She was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who encouraged her to move to Washington, D.C. And she did so because she wanted to join the fight against termination.

“The Indians are their own best spokesmen, their own best diplomats; but they can exercise these roles effectively only in proportion to their opportunities to exchange information and to use their combined strength and concerted voice,” she wrote in an article calling for more participation by Native people in elections.

Her son, Max Peterson, put Helen Peterson’s career in perspective when she died. “During those times, there were no women in power, really,” he said in the Denver Post. “Her accomplishments don’t sound like much now because a lot of women are doing the same things, but back then, doing those things were a big deal. She went to Washington as a lobbyist. That was an exclusively male area, and she managed to do a great job on behalf of Indian legislation and Indian rights.”

There will be a first at some point

Debra Haaland is sworn in and becomes Congresswomen Haaland on January 2nd 2019. Photo from Facebook

Two years ago, Denise Juneau made history in Montana. She had already won two statewide offices, the first Native woman to do so in any state. Then she took on and lost, a bid for Congress.

“I’m disappointed we lost,” she told me later. “But I don’t feel bad about it because we did everything we were supposed to. We just lost. That’s actually a really good space for me. Every time another Native woman steps up to run for any office, whether that be the state legislature, city council, U.S. Congress, it sort of paves the way. There’s sort of a pipeline, which is really awesome right now, that there’s never been a path for Native women to just really step up. I believe right now, we’re in a time and space where we see that happening,” Juneau said. “There will be a first at some point.”

And that path is wider today than ever. This last election two Native American women ran for governors of states, Paulette Jordan in Idaho, and Andria Tupola in Hawaii. Both lost, but paved the way for those who run next.

Four Native women ran for lieutenant governor of a state; Anastasia Pittman, Seminole; Deb Call, Dena’ina; Donna Bergstrom, Red Lake; and Peggy Flanagan, White Earth. Flanagan was elected. (Val Davidson, Yupik, left office last month as Alaska’s lieutenant governor.)

Flanagan will be an interesting official to watch. She plans on setting a new standard for what a lieutenant governor can do while in office. “I think my role will be to be Gov. Walz’s top adviser and to work on issues around public engagement, family economic security, some of those issues that I focused on in the Legislature,” she told Minnesota Public Radio. “It’s the life experience of an indigenous woman, single mother and a leader who has established herself around the same core values I believe as myself but from two very different worlds. It’s really good to have your top advisor who can bring a new perspective to issues you care about.”

There have been at least fourteen Native women to have run for Congress. The first (that I have found, anyway) was Jeanne Givens, Coeur d’Alene, in 1988. She had served two terms in the Idaho Representatives (as did Paulette Jordan) before challenging an incumbent, then Rep. Larry Craig. She lost by some thirty points but ran again two years later. She lost the primary, but one interesting twist is that state’s chapter president, Bonnie Sharp, of the National Organization for Women said that the Democrat who won the nomination (and later the race) undermined Givens’ credibility. “He has succeeded in getting a few members of the press to ‘buy into’ his approach. Why? Because of their predisposition against women candidates. This is a classic strategy for running against women candidates, and women all over the state are appalled.’’

Indeed that was the challenge for many of the first Native women running for Congress. The gender issues were as complex as the tribal ones.

Ada Deer on NBC’s Saturday Today show. NBC photo

Ada Deer, Menominee, ran for Congress in Wisconsin in 1982. Her race, like those of today, earned some national media. She told Scott Simon on the NBC Saturday Today show. “We need to understand the severe underrepresentation of women in the Congress. There are two senators out of 100, there are 29 women out of 435. And all of us will bring diversity of perspectives, diversity of experiences, and with my election, we will get a woman, an American Indian, an educator, a social worker, a leader, an activist. And we all have perspectives on the issues.”

She told Simon, “We must understand that American Indians are the smallest minority in the society and we’re the last people to be given citizenship. The Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924 and it’s taken time for people to become informed and to become involved. And it would be a very historic opportunity here in this election process.”

That payoff, that historic opportunity unfolded January 2, 2019. Kalyn Free, Choctaw, was a congressional candidate in 2004 in Oklahoma. “I am glad I ran, it was the experience of a lifetime. I do believe that folks like Ada Deer, Denise, did a lot of education not only about Indians but donors.” Free said all of these candidates set the stage for the swearing-in of Davids and Haaland. She said she would be at the celebrations in Washington. “I am absolutely thrilled. I have wept tears of joy multiple times over these women winning,” Free said. “There’s no place I’d rather be than DC.”

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