OPINION
11/02/2018 05:45 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2018

2018 Is The Year Of The Native Woman, But We've Always Been Leaders

Next week’s midterm elections will go down in history as a turning point for Native women in this country. More Native women are running for political office across the U.S. than ever before ― an incredible 55 in totalaccording to Mark Trahant of Indian Country Today.

As a Native woman who has served her community as a tribal attorney and judge, I know what it’s like to be the only woman (and sometimes the only person of color) in the room. I also know, both from personal experience and from our people’s history, that Native women make resilient and natural leaders. The 55 candidates on the ballot next week join a long list of influential Native women, including leaders like Wilma Mankiller, Elouise Cobell, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Debra White Plume and Winona LaDuke.

Native women have always led; indigenous nations throughout the Americas were founded on matriarchy. Visit any tribal community and you see Native women in the trenches, directing programs and acting as the impetus for movements behind the scenes. But U.S. history, as told through the lens of colonial patriarchy, would have you believe that Native women were invisible (with the exception of Sacagawea and Pocahontas). That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Native women have been leading our communities since time immemorial,” Peggy Flanagan told me over email. She’s a citizen of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, has served in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2015 and is the Democratic candidate for Minnesota lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz. “Now, we are bringing that leadership into the field of electoral politics by running for office.”

“We never stopped being leaders, and we never stopped trying to make our voices heard,” Deb Haaland said in an email. She’s a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and the Democratic candidate for the 1st Congressional District of New Mexico. “But now, more than ever, we have been successfully overcoming barriers that have long prevented us from accessing positions of leadership in politics.” 

When Native women see a problem in the community, we step up and fix it ― it is a natural next step for us to run for office. Peggy Flanagan

It may feel like an aberration to see such a large number of Native women running for office today, but in truth, we were born to lead. Stories of the many Native great-grandmothers who kept our people alive and thriving for millennia in the face of white colonization have not been documented by the West, but we hold them in our hearts, and some of us still carry their names. (My own Dakota name ― Cankudutawin, Red Road Woman ― was first given to an ancestor who was present at the Battle of Greasy Grass, also known as Little Bighorn.)

“Our women have endured so much for so many generations that leadership comes naturally to us ... we have resiliency embedded deeply in our DNA,” Ashley Nicole McCray told me. She’s from the Oglala Lakota nation and Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and is the first Native woman to run for the public utility commission in Oklahoma. “There is very little that can shake a Native woman’s resolve or force her to stay down.”

Native leaders bring our people’s past experiences into current roles and platforms ― like renewable energy, education and health care. “We have faced immense struggles, from tribal sovereignty, an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and being single mothers reliant on food stamps,” Haaland told me. “Native women are among our country’s most marginalized, and we have been advocating for indigenous rights, women’s rights, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, and climate justice for centuries.”

“We hold a strong sense of connection to the generations of women who came before us and deep responsibility to continue to work,” Flanagan said. “When Native women see a problem in the community, we step up and fix it ― it is a natural next step for us to run for office.” 

We never stopped being leaders, and we never stopped trying to make our voices heard. Deb Haaland

The journey to political office in the U.S. has never been easy for Native people, and certainly not for Native women. But the latest polling data for Haaland and the Walz/Flanagan ticket is promising: Haaland is currently up by as many as 10 percentage points, and Walz/Flanagan are leading their GOP opponents by nearly 9 points in the latest poll average. Polling data for McCray’s race in Oklahoma isn’t available.

“Because I am on a path to become only the second Native woman in Oklahoma state history to be elected to a statewide office, I have faced sexism, racism and ageism,” McCray told me. “Despite my extensive qualifications and my experience, some have felt compelled to focus on my identity as a young Native woman or as an ‘activist’ in an effort to discredit me.”

Flanagan told me she’s experienced more “teachable moments” while on the campaign trail than she can count. “Being diplomatic in those moments and picking my battles has become a skill I work to develop every day. A battle that most Native women I know fight every day.”

In these challenging times, America needs politicians who can look at old problems with new eyes and offer original solutions ― and historically marginalized citizens, including the 55 Native women candidates on the ballot next week, are that breath of fresh air. They’ve been tested, they’re qualified, and they are born leaders.

“I believe it is up to my generation to carry the burden on our shoulders so we may break the cycles that continue to keep us silenced and oppressed,” McCray said. “I truly believe if we do so, our emerging young women will then be able to fully rise to their power and deliver our people.”

“The historic nature of this race isn’t lost on me,” Flanagan said. If elected, she would be one of the highest-ranking elected Native women in American history. “I don’t take this lightly.”

“We know how much things need to change,” Haaland said. “We know where we need to go from here.”

Ruth H. Hopkins is a Dakota/Lakota Sioux Writer, co-founder of Last Real Indians and former award-winning journalist for Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter @ruthhhopkins. 

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