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Native American Candidates Look to Build on Momentum

Nonprofits and tribal governments across the country have been active in recruiting more Native American candidates for public office, and increasing voter participation. (Adobe Stock)
Nonprofits and tribal governments across the country have been active in recruiting more Native American candidates for public office, and increasing voter participation. (Adobe Stock)
August 14, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Native Americans hope to gain more ground in the 2020 elections. Six Native candidates will be on Minnesota's November ballot in races for the state Senate and House.

In 2018, a record number of Native Americans collectively ran for Congress, leadership posts, and legislative seats across the country.

Gaylene Spolarich, of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, ran uncontested in this year's primary for Minnesota House seat 10-B, but will have an opponent this fall.

She credited the work of tribal governments for helping with the movement.

"I believe the effects of the government affairs within the tribes, because they've really pushed hard to get American Indians involved in the elections process," said Spolarich. "And that is where it's coming from."

And she said inspiration plays a role, pointing to Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who in 2018 became the first Native American woman elected to statewide office in Minnesota.

That year also saw the first two Native women elected to Congress.

Those who recruit candidates from tribal areas have said fundraising is a barrier, along with the need to increase ballot access.

O.J. Semans is co-director of Four Directions, a voting-rights group for Native Americans. He said it's hard for these candidates to attract potential voters living off reservations, often because they lack the funds to run a traditional campaign.

Restrictive voting laws also get in the way of building a loyal base in tribal communities.

"Because they're running in areas where there's a large Indian population," said Semans, "they need to have the base be able to cast a ballot."

Observers said there is some hope, though. In 2018, North Dakota saw record voter participation among Native Americans despite that state's voter ID law, which opponents argue is a form of suppression that affects tribes.

This year adds the health concerns of the pandemic, limiting grassroots campaigns from going door-to-door.

And while Native Americans seeking public office are often associated with the Democratic party, Semans said that shouldn't be the only path toward winning.

"We want em' to seek office as Republicans, as Independents, as Democrats," said Semans, "because if they're able to get into the office, then they're able to start dialogue."

He added that having Native Americans serve in elected office, no matter their political affiliation, can help their colleagues better understand the longstanding issues tribal communities have dealt with - issues many say have been overlooked.


Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - MN