All Our Sisters and Daughters: 2019 is the year of the Indigenous woman politician

Rep. Ruth Anna Buffalo, image courtesy Lea Black PhotographyThe 2018 mid-term election cycle was defined by the mobilization of groups often confined to the margins, and the wind of change that swept in from Indian Country was not only important from a cultural and racial standpoint, but the manner in which Native American politicians and their voters broke down gender norms was nothing short of triumphant.

Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk is the first openly LGBTQ member of congress to come from Kansas. Deb Haaland, Pueblo of Laguna tribe, is an anti-oligarchy Democrat who grew-up in a military family that was constantly on the move. Ruth Anna Buffalo of the affiliated Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes is the first indigenous Democrat woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature. In a sensational victory, Buffalo – who was sworn-in wearing traditional dress – replaces Randy Boehning, the sponsor of a voter ID law that disproportionally disenfranchised Native voters across the state. These recent appointees join the likes of Paulette Jordan and Diane J. Humetewa who already hold office in government. It would seem that challenging the norm has become the new norm in Native American communities.

And ‘communities’ is the right word. “It’s more than just politics,” explains Representative Buffalo, “it’s cultural. I don’t consider myself a politician. I consider myself a connector. I am a big sister, so naturally it’s in me to stick-up for others and stand-up for those in our societies, our friends and our relatives, who need protection the most.”

Buffalo is not alone in thinking this way. A profound sense of veneration towards family and neighbors exists across Indian Country, and the successes of Davids, Haaland and Buffalo are the result of a powerful grassroots movement driven not by money and galas, but by pockets of tightly-knit individuals committed to inspiring positive change within their communities. And it is truly a movement that people believe in. Arlyssa Becenti, an award-winning Navajo journalist on the political beat in Window Rock, AZ was direct with her assessment, “these women did break barriers, and I applaud that. I can’t wait to see what their influence and position will do for Indian Country.”

But for individuals like Becenti and anyone else who was paying attention, the breaking of the barrier was also not unexpected. Over the past decade, a wave of decolonization has engulfed the Americas, and at the head are indigenous women stirring emotions and creating community in a way that is leaving the rest of the world breathless. Take Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum, Nehiyaw, who kick-started the Idle No More movement back in December 2012. A spark that lit a wildfire, Idle No More has since become a global phenomenon, with the movement’s message of tribal sovereignty and indigenous rights even getting as far as Buckingham Palace in London.

“Idle No More is a good example of women leading,” comments Buffalo, “but this is nothing new in our indigenous community, it has always been there. This is reclaiming who we were, who we have always been.”

And it’s not only indigenous women who are feeling the rekindling of ancestral ways. Indigenous males of all ages are welcoming the strengthening of matrilineal thinking across Indian Country. Che Jim is a Navajo actor best known for his role in the 2016 film, Dark Ground. But for Jim, the glamour of the movies will forever come second. What matters most to Che Jim is community, and as an activist and engineer of civic programs, Jim sees the surge of indigenous women to political office as a product of a widespread consciousness that is increasingly becoming decolonized.

“I believe it’s a direct reflection of us as indigenous people, continuing to reclaim our identity. Indigenous people have always regarded our women as major leaders and many tribal nations are defined as matriarchal societies, including the Navajo. To this day from individual homes, to local communities to massive movements, you will find women leading. All of our daughters and sisters are now having a path paved for them that has never existed before.”

“A massive part of this is to let go of the strict European, patriarchal thinking and behaviors we have been force taught through generations of trauma and misplacement,” continues Jim, “and instead, de-program ourselves and return to our original way and uplift and embrace our indigenous women. Women are extremely important. They are sacred, and they demand respect.”

Rory Wheeler was elected Marshall of the Seneca Nation in New York State during the 2018 midterm elections. The youngest individual to be hold the office at just 21, Wheeler may not be one of the female leaders causing waves, but he is a member of a generation of powerful young indigenous voices springing-up across Indian Country. And like many of his contemporaries in positions of political leadership, Wheeler is vocal about the influence of female politicians within indigenous communities.

“Our women stood up and answered the call. They’re not going to sit around and wait for other people to make decisions for their future generations. In the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee where I come from, we hold our women to the highest of regards as they were the ones who chose our leaders.”

So, what of the future? What can Indian Country and the world at large expect as a result of this historic opportunity for cultural and gender rights? In North Dakota, Ruth Buffalo will be driving improvements in housing, healthcare and education. From the House of Representatives in Washington D.C., Deb Haaland plans to make good on her election ‘priorities’ of resisting the fossil fuel industry, developing economic equality and fighting for the rights of working families. Meanwhile, expect fellow House Representative, Sharice Davids to campaign for diversity and solutions for universal healthcare.

The path will not end in 2019, either. Rather, this may be the seminal year for something bigger, something longer lasting. And this is the truth coming from Indian Country. As Ruth Anna Buffalo explained:

“It’s great to see the ideas resonating with our younger generation. I had one of my daughters come along to watch one of the video shoots during campaign, and said after, ‘when I grow-up I want to run for office.’”

“All I hope is that hundreds more indigenous women and indigenous men run for office… and continue to win!”



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