At least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians serve in 17 state legislatures. That statistic is important for several reasons. This is Trahant Reports. I’ve built a new data base of Native Americans serving in state governments. You can find it on the Native Voice One web site.
IF you look at the body of work of Native American state senators and representatives, you’ll find them advocating for better services, more funding and improving relationships between tribal nations and state governments.
Montana best demonstrates the growing influence of Native American voters.
Some twenty years ago, Montana was much like any other state with significant Native American population. It only one or two Native Americans serving in the legislature. Then a candidate win in 1997. And again in 2003. By 2007 Native Americans in Montana reached a high of ten seats in the legislature; that represented some 6.6 percent of that body. And Montana’s population is 7.4 percent Native American. Today there are 3 Native Americans in the Montana Senate and 5 in the House, some 5.3 percent of the state legislature.
To put that figure in national terms: If Congress were 5.3 percent Native American, there would be 5 U.S. Senators and 21 members of the House. Even if you adjust for population, the number of Native American members in Congress would have to more than double to equal the effort in Montana.
One of Montana’s success stories is the community organizing work of Western Native Voice. Leading up to the 2012 election, Western Native Voice set a goal of registering some 3,000 Native Americans for the primary and 5,000 for the general elections. Western Native Voice exceeded that goal by some 1,300 additional voters.
The state with the largest number of Native American legislators is Oklahoma with 14. It’s also the only state with a balance between Democrats and Republicans (8 Democrats and 6 Republicans).Nationally of the 70 elected Native Americans in state legislatures, 59 are Democrats and 11 are Republicans.
State offices are often a source of talent for higher elective posts, ranging from Congress to the White House. Remember it was only 1996 when Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate.
Across the country it’s clear that Native American representation before state governments significantly trails the population of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. There are 40 members serving in Alaska’s House and 20 in that state’s Senate. Yet only five Alaska Natives represent in the House — or 12.5 percent — and two in the Senate. Alaska has the highest voting age population in the country, some 17 percent.
However the growth of Native American voters — and elected officials — is only at the beginning of a trend. We know our population is growing faster than the general population. And in many states there is already the numbers to build a winning election coalition that includes the Native community.
Look across the country and see why the Native Americans elected now are the next generation of leaders in the Congress — and even the White House. If you want to know who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama, look to the states. Her name will be Paulette Jordan, Peggy Flanagan or Denise Juneau.
I am Mark Trahant reporting.