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The Guardian: Meet the trailblazing Native American leading a surge in voter activism

September 17, 2016

The Guardian: Meet the trailblazing Native American leading a surge in voter activism

By Joanna Walters

In the 2016 elections, Denise Juneau is both a trailblazer and an underdog. She is relishing both roles.

If the Democrat causes an upset in November and wins Montana’s only seat in the House of Representatives, she will become the first Native American woman ever to serve in Congress.

Montana is on the 2016 Red to Blue list, a Democratic list of traditionally Republican states the party hopes to win in its bid to take the House as well as the White House.

Even if Juneau loses, however, she is surfing a wave of energy affecting a population that conventional analyses of US politics often define as ambivalent. From protests over a proposed pipeline in North Dakota being hailed as a new civil rights movement to a record number of Native American candidates running at state and federal level, passions are running high.

“It’s awesome,” Juneau said in a telephone interview. “It’s really exciting, this new surge of people becoming involved. I feel it, particularly when I’m in Indian Country and among young people wanting to work on my campaign. It’s a sea change.”

Juneau was brought up in the small, hardscrabble town of Browning, on the Blackfeet reservation at the edge of Glacier National Park. She describes herself as a native of the area “going back 54 generations” – long before it was called Montana by explorers. She is a descendant of the Blackfeet and a member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes.

She is also one of five candidates at the federal level and 83 at the state level who are Native American, figures which experts believe to be a record high.

Such a large number of candidates and a hoped-for high turnout among Native American voters is expected to have an unprecedented effect on both the presidential election and future tribal participation in mainstream politics.

“This is going to be the best year ever for the Native vote and we are making such an impact,” said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), adding that he grew up in Oklahoma rejecting any involvement in non-tribal politics but, over time, came to change his mind.

“Traditionally,” he said, “the federal government has not brought anything but disrespect, taking our lands, our minerals, our fishing rights – so many rights – and putting up barriers to prevent people voting.

“Many wondered why should they participate, why should they care, by voting or running for office? But people are beginning to think, ‘Why not try something different?’ Attitudes are evolving.”

Juneau has been Montana’s education superintendent since 2008, and as such the first Native American woman in the US elected to statewide office.

“When it became clear that you could change the system from the inside,” she said, “by being present on the [legislative] floor and talking to colleagues, that’s power for a people who have been disregarded and disenfranchised. I have a record of representing all Montanans but also with that special knowledge of how to work in Indian Country.”

She hopes Native American and student votes in Montana, as well as suspicion of presidential candidate Donald Trump among many Republicans, will help push her to victory in November.

Oklahoma’s Republican US representatives, Markwayne Mullin, a member of the Cherokee Nation, and Tom Cole, of the Chickasaw, are the only two Native Americans in Congress. Both are campaigning for re-election.

In Washington’s fifth district, Democrat Joe Pakootas, who had a tough childhood on the Colville Indian reservation in the state, is challenging a Republican incumbent.

In North Dakota, Chase Iron Eyes is running as a Democrat for the state’s only US House seat. An attorney and Native rights activist, Iron Eyes has burst into the public consciousness amid the uproar over the Dakota Access Pipeline, as an outspoken member of the Standing Rock Sioux, the tribe at the center of the protests.

When the federal government ordered a temporary halt to construction on the pipeline, a little over a week ago, Iron Eyes said the issue went beyond indigenous interests over threats to water supplies and implicated “systems that assume the Earth’s resources are limitless”. He also pointed out that members of 140 tribes had been counted at the protest camp: a huge turnout.

“This is huge,” he said.

In April, when Iron Eyes was chosen to run for Congress, he said he aimed to defeat his Republican opponent by mobilizing the Native American vote “like never before” and reaching out to people who feel “neglected” by the government.

Robert Holden, of the NCAI, said Native American turnout in presidential elections was typically below 50%, the lowest of any ethnic group. According to the thinktank Demos, in the 2008 election, which put Barack Obama into the White House as the first African American president, Native American turnout was 47.5%. Total turnout was 63%.

Holden asked: “Can you imagine if we could get [the Native American vote] up to 75%? It would be simply amazing. We would knock the lights out. If we got record turnout this election, it would sent a message to everyone that Native votes count. It can make a significant difference in some races.”

Native Americans make up 1.7% of the US population – alone, they are not going to be decisive in sending Trump or Hillary Clinton to the White House. Nonetheless, the surge in the number of candidates and likely voter interest make this a watershed year.

Mark Trahant, a well-known blogger on Native American issues and professor of journalism at the University of North Dakota, said 83 candidates running for state office was about double the typical number. Five in federal races was, he believed, unprecedented, although it is impossible to be sure as reliable national records are scarce.

“Those running for state office are not just in the western states,” said Trahant. He has drawn up a map showing that while most Native American candidates come from states with large Native American populations, such as Alaska, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Montana, Native Americans are also in races in Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon and many other states.

At the federal level, Trahant said, Juneau is sparking the most excitement, as a statewide office holder with a track record running a credible and competitive race.

She faces strong competition, however. Her opponent, Ryan Zinke, was only elected in 2014, but as a former navy Seal he is a striking character who has been fundraising vigorously, stumping for Trump, even suggesting himself as a possible vice-presidential candidate.

Robert Saldin, associate professor of political science at the University of Montana, said Juneau and Zinke had both performed “pretty well” at two debates in recent weeks, with no clear winner. Their next debate is scheduled for 5 October. The Democrats have not won Montana’s House seat since 1994.

But Lee Banville of the University of Montana School of Journalism said Juneau, while being a trailblazer on paper, had not necessarily “lit the trail on fire with soaring rhetoric” and was seen by some as a “wonkish” state official.

“It’s Zinke’s race to lose,” he said.

Juneau said her “wow factor” would be found in the headlines after the vote, announcing she has won.

“I’ve been the underdog in every race I’ve won and all the pundits have been wrong,” she said. “Underdog is where I like to be,” she said.

Montana elected America’s first woman to sit in Congress, the suffragist Jeannette Rankin,100 years ago. It has not elected a woman since. For Juneau, a Harvard graduate, victory would blaze a trail in another way: she is an openly gay candidate.

“It’s a historic campaign in many ways,” she said. “The idea that Montana could get its second woman in Congress, its first ‘out’ candidate for federal office and that I could be the first American Indian woman to serve in Congress are very significant things.

“It’s about looking to a future that is more inclusive and reflecting the diversity in this country.”

As schools superintendent, she has helped public high school graduation rates in Montana rise from 80% when she took office in 2009 to 86% last year, and dropout rates to fall from 5% to 3.4%. Despite Native American graduation rates last year being 62% with a dropout rate of 6.3%, Juneau said that when she went into the many communities in Montana, she focused on seeing “the potential, the hope”.

If Juneau does not win in November, Saldin said that if, as some are speculating, Zinke successfully runs for Senate in 2018, Juneau may well have a good second chance for the House seat.

“You won’t have seen the end of Juneau,” he said.