Peggy Flanagan had wanted to be a special education teacher. She’d volunteered in special education classrooms for almost a decade. She’d earned her diploma in the field. But toward the end of her time in school, she ended up on a drive past Sen. Paul Wellstone’s reelection headquarters. Wellstone, a progressive lion, had served two terms in the Senate. He wanted a third. (He died in a plane crash less than two weeks before the race.) Flanagan liked him, in particular for his simple conviction that politics could improve people’s lives. On a whim, Flanagan decided to stop in. “I stuffed envelopes for two hours with complete strangers,” she says. “And that was it. I had been bitten by the bug.”
Still, Flanagan could not have predicted she’d end up where she is now—on the ballot in Minnesota, a candidate for lieutenant governor who, if elected, will be the first person of color to hold a constitutional office in the state and the highest-ranked Native American state office holder across all 50 states.
Behind that pile of mailers, Flanagan admits she did not see this future: the one in which she leads a national push for better representation of Native American women in public office nationwide.
The New York Times reported last month that almost 40 Native American women jumped into political races this election season, with four women running for Congress, three in contention for governors’ mansions, and 31 in pursuit of state legislature seats. The trend is historic and includes women from both ends of the political spectrum.
“American Indians have been invisible…in so many sectors in society,” Denise Juneau, the superintendent of Montana schools and one of the first native women in the United States to win a statewide executive position, said in an interview with the Times. But their election is not just a matter of representation, Flanagan tells me. It’s an issue of power.
Even at 22, Flanagan understood that native people didn’t have the voice they needed in the offices where decisions were made. “I saw, really in that one afternoon, that electoral politics cold build power for us, and I knew I wanted to be involved in that.”
She’d inherited that attitude, she explains—both from her non-native mother and grandmother, who’d been activists in progressive politics “at a time when it wasn’t so popular for women to be that involved” and from her Native American father, who lives on the White Earth Reservation. “He has always been really invested in tribal politics and tribal government,” she says. “He understands their constitution forward and backwards. He knows all the laws and treaties. And he said to me, as soon as I went down this path, ‘My girl, I believed in burning the system down. You believe in changing it from the inside out.'” Flanagan has seen for herself what it looks like when native people have not participated in government, either out of disinterest, discrimination, or to demonstrate their opposition to federal policies toward native communities. That course of action, which has led to mass disenfranchisement and witnessed the plunder of public lands like Bears Ears National Monument—”it hasn’t worked out so well for us in the past,” she says. “Bottom line, I want to be present. I want for us to be heard.”
Hers is the same motivation that’s fueled Deb Haaland, a candidate for Congress in New Mexico. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and a Democrat, has had a hand in electoral politics for at least a decade. In 2008, she volunteered for Barack Obama, registering Native American voters in rural America. In 2014, she was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, and when she lost that race, she dove into a statewide effort to turn the New Mexico House of Representatives blue in 2015. (It worked.) That first race—even the defeat—was a revelation: “If I ran, if I kept running, I could make sure that more of our folks were at the table, were in the conversation. That became the ultimate motivation.”
Her commitment to the cause, however, doesn’t ease the realities of her responsibilities. “I’m a single mom, so I have all the questions all women have when they do this, plus. ‘What about my daughter? What about the dishes? Who will take my kid to soccer practice?'” Haaland laughs with some ruefulness when she recounts it: “I’m running for Congress, and it’s not glamorous. It’s still me who has to do the laundry at midnight.”
Haaland, who traveled to Standing Rock to protest with activists there, has focused on medical care and the environment, two issues that matter not just to indigenous people, but to her entire district. It’s paid off; she recently won 35 percent of the vote in a crowded field at the start Democratic convention. Joe Monahan, a political blogger in New Mexico, toldthe Times that she’s a “strong contender” to win the primary in June. “We’re seeing a new generation of Native Americans who have seen more opportunity in education starting to knock down the doors in politics,” Monahan said.
Especially under Donald Trump, a president who has repeatedly offended native people and likes to refer to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas,” it’s never been more important for indigenous communities to get out the vote, Haaland insists, and to elect some of their own. “I don’t need to speak for all tribes,” she continues. “I need to be in a position where I can let them speak for themselves.” Flanagan, who shares her ticket with gubernatorial candidate Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), appreciates that voters will not elect them just because she happens to be Native American. But even as she appeals to them, she will not minimize who she is. She cites her mentor, LaDonna Harris, a Comanche Native American and activist, who taught her to embrace all of her identities. “At no time am I not an Ojibwe woman. At no time do I look at the world without this lens. Win or lose, we’re helping to clear a path for the people who will come after us. There is no greater thrill.”