Former Montana Sen. Carol Juneau once said that she considered state office because that’s where she could make a difference.
This is Trahant Reports.
The year was 1998. She was first appointed to the legislature to replace a man who left office to take up a seat on the Blackfeet Tribal Council. Then she became one of two Native Americans serving in the Montana House of Representatives.
Juneau said that Montana’s American Indians ought to have better representation, because tribal people “are citizens of the state of Montana, the same as any other citizens. I’d like to see that Indian people and Indian tribes in Montana aren’t left outside of everything,” she said.
Today Native Montanans are not left out.
The state has the most Native Americans elected as legislators in the country, three members of the Senate and six members of the House. More than that: Montana has elected more women than any other state: Four of the nine legislators.
The Montana story has a national application, too. A higher percentage of Native American women serve in state legislatures than do women nationally.
Women make up about 25 percent of state legislatures. But a little more than 40 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native legislators are female. The numbers break down this way: There are at least 67 Native American legislators out of 7,383 seats in 50 states or nearly one percent. (If you think that’s bad: Congress only has Native representation pegged at one-third of one percent.) Of those 67 seats, at least 25 of them are held by Native American women. So another way to look at the data: There are 1,800 legislative seats held by women and that works out to a Native representation of 1.4 percent.
There is still a long way to go to reach parity with the population, but it’s much better than just about any other category in the body politic.
A recent report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows more than 570 elected tribal leaders and, in that group, just under 25 percent are women.
Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, currently represents more citizens than any Native woman in America (more than 90,000 people live in her North Seattle district). She was elected to Seattle’s City Council in November of 2015. In an interview with the Tacoma Art Museum she talked about her idea about the role of women: “While men were in charge of external power, women had interior, spiritual, and domestic power. They were the centers of the community.” That’s exactly how she’s approached her job on the council. She’s argued for community services from sidewalks to child care.
It’s so long past we should be using the phrase, “ever” or for that matter, “the first.” We need more Native American women in office.
I am Mark Trahant.