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How Native women in state legislatures are changing politics

From tribal sovereignty to missing and murdered Indigenous women, they’re responding to Native concerns.

- November 30, 2023
Official photos of three Native American women state legislators
Official photos of, left to right, Wyoming state senator Alfie Ellis; Washington state representative Debra Lekanoff; and Kansas state representative Christina Haswood.

Nadia Brown: Along with my co-editor Sarah Allen Gershon, I published Distinct Identities: Minority Women in U.S. Politics, 2nd Edition in July 2023, a text that is often assigned in undergraduate classes on gender and politics. Elise Blasingame’s chapter in Distinct Identities focuses on elected Native American women. While there is no controversy about including Native women in Distinct Identities because gender is one of the primary analytical lenses of the text, it is often less clear how Native Americans fit into the subfield of racial and ethnic politics, which our volume covers as well, offering students a look at how various identities complicate the category of “woman” in U.S. politics. Can we really frame questions around sovereignty and tribal rights for Native Americans as similar to Latino, Asian American, Black American, and other ethno-racial claims for inclusion in the U.S. polity? If we view the U.S. as a genocidal settler-colonial state with a history of refusing citizenship to Native peoples, we discover new questions and possibilities for understanding Native women’s politics. Blasingame’s work in Distinct Identities addresses some of these questions. When I interviewed her for Good Authority, she talked about how Native American women state lawmakers make policy that reflects their gendered identities as well as their experiences of belonging to tribal communities. Note that these women advance policy perspectives that are born out of their desire to enhance tribal sovereignty, a political goal that is often impacted by experiences of racism and gendered oppression

Good Authority runs this interview here, because as we close out Native American History Month, it is imperative that we are guided by the narratives of Indigenous women as we seek to understand how to meaningfully engage with and take seriously the claims of “minoritized” communities – meaning, a group of people who do not have access to power, wealth, or resources as compared to the dominant group. This may mean that we continue to complicate how we teach – or categorize the study of – Native women.

Nadia Brown: Your work has looked at Native American women state legislators to argue that they both leverage the traditional power structures and challenge the status quo. In what way does this group provide substantive representation to their constituencies?

Elise Blasingame: In examining the policy choices of the 43 Native American women who served as state legislators between 2018 and 2021, I found that many of these legislators pursue goals related to supporting tribal interests in addition to serving broader constituency interests (e.g., healthcare, education). Many of these legislators were clear that enhancing tribal sovereignty was a primary motivation for running for office.

For instance, “For too long, a lot of legislation and policies were made about us. We weren’t at the table. Our voices weren’t heard,” said said former Wyoming Rep. Andi Clifford (Northern Arapaho, Democrat). “That’s why it’s so important to get my people out on the reservation, from both tribes, engaged in politics.”

These legislators from 16 states and representing more than 37 tribes not only introduced legislation in support of tribal interests, but they also worked to “Indigenize” the space of their respective state capitols. This can include wearing traditional clothing or regalia during session, inviting traditional singers and drummers into the capitol, or even speaking their tribal language during hearings. They may also ask for tribal consultation on certain state agency proposals to ensure adequate representation on matters that impact Native communities.

Kansas representative Christina Haswood (Diné, Democrat) wore traditional regalia during her swearing-in ceremony. “It was important for everyone to see that we Indigenous peoples are still here, and in rooms such as the Kansas House Chamber, any attempt to dehumanize or attack Native peoples, did not work and will continue to fail,” Haswood told Vogue Magazine. “Also, I wanted to show all the other Indigenous folks that we belong here, and you too can become a lawmaker for your state. Because when I was growing up, I never saw Natives in political positions outside of tribal politics.”

In what ways do Native women state legislators advance sovereign rights and tribal awareness for Native communities?

The Native women lawmakers in the study were able to support 416 pieces of legislation related to Native American interests. Of these, 104 were appropriations, 257 were changes to state code, and 55 were resolutions or memorials. 

While all of these bills supported the sovereignty of tribal nations in some way, certain pieces of legislation overtly expressed support for the rights of tribes to self-determination. Tribal sovereignty is directly tied to the ability of Native nations to self-govern and to enact rights guaranteed to them by treaty with the U.S. government. 

In Minnesota, Native women filed bills in the House and Senate that would formally recognize the government-to-government relationship between the state and tribal nations. Sen. Affie Ellis (Diné, Republican) passed two resolutions in Wyoming recognizing the 150th anniversaries of two federal treaties: 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie (13 tribes) and the 1868 Treaty of Fort Bridger (Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes). 

Three bills were introduced in Washington, including two that expressly confirmed the treaty-reserved fishing rights of tribes and one establishing a joint committee on tribal-state relations. HB 1610 would have provided for reparations to tribes whose fishing gear was damaged due to non-Native fishing enterprises operating in waters reserved for tribes based on long-standing treaty agreements. 

Rep. Carolyn Crawford (Saginaw Chippewa, R-Miss.) passed a bill in 2021 that allowed Native residents to use their tribal IDs as legal means of personal identification. These efforts protect the power of tribes to implement treaty rights at the state level, bringing awareness to state agencies about their role in respecting tribal sovereignty. 

How is the policy landscape shaped by sovereign interests and tribal resources for Native communities?

States have unique opportunities to engage and partner with tribes in many policy areas. Though it is the federal government that has the constitutional authority to handle tribal affairs, Congress has delegated certain policy areas to states. Further, tribes and states may choose to co-manage lands or resources in cases where it may be mutually beneficial. 

But most states have a history of hostile behavior toward tribes that is not easily forgotten. This is certainly the case in North Dakota, where tribes have been suing the state for decades around restrictive voting laws. A bill filed by Rep. Ruth Buffalo (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, Democrat) would have established a truth and reconciliation process between the state and the tribal communities based there.

Not only have Native people largely been absent from state legislatures due to policies of disenfranchisement, but they are also busy participating in their primary governments. Making the jump from tribal council to the state capitol is not just challenging for Native women, but an act that takes great consideration about where to place limited resources and energy.

“I’m living currently off the reservation, in a district that is not located near or on present-day tribal lands,” Rep. Buffalo told the New York Times. “But my entire family, basically – my mom, my sisters, my aunt, cousins, uncle – they all live on the reservation.” In states where the capitol is hours from the nearest reservation, these legislators make additional sacrifices to serve tribal communities.

How does thinking about Native women’s politics converge with the political science literature in gender and politics? 

Native women in state legislatures experience multiple barriers in terms of gender-based discrimination as they gain political power. Though more often, these legislators shared stories about how a racialized identity manifested challenges on the campaign trail.

“I ran against five white males,” Washington Rep. Debra Lekanoff (Tlingit/Aleut, Democrat) told the WNPA news service, about her first campaign in 2018. “It was an ugly and racial race. Coming from a predominantly Democratic district, I dealt with more racism than I thought I would ever see. I actually had one [candidate] say, ‘You have to choose between being Native and being American. You have to pick one or the other, because you can’t pick both.’”

Native people must navigate as lifelong dual citizens, balancing their primary identity as tribal citizens while understanding that participation in the U.S. system is likely to yield meaningful results for tribal interests.

But these legislators also have unique opportunities to demonstrate expertise. Native women in this study were particularly adept at galvanizing support for addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Many political science studies use the policy area of gender-based violence as a way to explore how women and men may differ in terms of bill sponsorship or voting behavior. In this case, Native women lawmakers do appear to have a specialized interest in stopping gender-based crimes within their communities.

The legislators in this study introduced 47 bills related to addressing the crisis, ranging from awareness-raising resolutions to law enforcement mandates and funding. Oregon Rep. Tawna Sanchez (Shoshone-Bannock, Ute and Carrizo, Democrat) was able to pass her bill declaring a state emergency and providing directives to the Oregon Department of State Police on how to approach these cases. 

“We know every day when people go missing in urban areas or even in rural areas, there’s an all-out force to find them. There are people’s faces who show up on the news all the time, but that doesn’t happen in Indian Country,” Sanchez told radio station KLCC. “And we want that to change.” 

In that same year, Montana Rep. Rae Peppers (Crow, Democrat) passed Hanna’s Act (HB 21) – named for 21-year old Hanna Harris, who went missing and was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The bill allowed the Montana Department of Justice to hire a full-time missing person specialist.

In addition to their achievements in other policy areas, Native American women are using their positions in state legislatures to move forward legislation and appropriations that support tribal nations. Whether they serve as the first or the only Native lawmaker in their state, these legislators were able to pass meaningful legislation concerning taxation, tribal self-governance, education, cultural practice, data sovereignty, and natural resources, specifically aimed at assisting Native American communities.

Elise Blasingame is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Georgia.