President Trump Is Spurring Native American Women to Run for Office

5 minute read

President Donald Trump routinely calls a U.S. senator “Pocahontas.” One time, he did it in front of Navajo code talkers who helped America during World War II.

To decorate the Oval Office, he chose a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the president notorious for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which set in motion the series of forced migrations that became known as the Trail of Tears.

And his Administration sought to shrink Bears Ears National Monument — an area full of sacred tribal sites — by more than 1.1 million acres.

Actions like these are helping spur a surge in Native American women seeking political office. During recent primaries, three women of Native American descent were seeking gubernatorial seats, four in congressional elections and at least 31 more in state elections.

Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and a Democrat seeking to represent Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, has set her sights on becoming the first Native congresswoman.

Davids called the 2016 election “dehumanizing.”

“If someone is running for an office and they are saying things that are dehumanizing to groups of people, we need people who are standing up and running against those folks to say, ‘What these folks are saying is not OK,’” Davids said.

“Literally the only way for us to do that is to run for office.”

Read More: She Could Be the First Native American Woman in Congress. But This Single Mother Says She’s ‘Not Exceptional

Historically, Native Americans are among the most underrepresented groups in Washington.

Currently, there are only two Native American members of Congress, both Republican men: Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin.

These women are looking to change that.

“We are galvanizing on the momentum of this time in history,” Davids said.

The candidates aren’t just running against Trump, however. All four who spoke with TIME talked about issues ranging from increasing access to affordable healthcare, making quality childhood education more available and protecting the environment.

But experts say it’s hard to miss the effect that Trump has had.

“Trump is singularly distinctive in the degree of polarization and antipathy he has raised in ways that negatively affect lots of communities at the margins — including native peoples,” said Joseph Gone, the chair of Native American Studies at University of Michigan.

Peggy Flanagan, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor in Minnesota and a member of White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, said Native American women are feeling especially isolated after the 2016 election.

“What we saw in the past administration was President Obama very intentionally reached out to tribes [to address our problems],” Flanagan said. “There’s been a bit of whiplash for folks in Indian country with regards to how the president adopted a perspective we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Statistically, Native women are much more likely to suffer from poverty and high rates of violence.

Data from the 2012 American Community Survey indicates 29.1 percent of people who identify as Native American or Alaskan Native as their only race were in poverty. The national average that same year was less than half that, at 14.5 percent.

Deb Haaland, this month’s democratic primary winner of New Mexico’s dominantly-blue 1st Congressional District, echoed the need for expanding diversity in Congress to include Native Americans and other underrepresented groups.

“I’ve had to struggle like a lot of folks. I’m still paying for student loans. I’m a single mom. I know what it’s like to have to put back food at the checkout line because you don’t have enough money and those kinds of things,” the Laguna Pueblo tribe member told TIME this month. “I think it’s important that we have different perspectives [represented].”

Paulette Jordan, a direct descendant of tribal chiefs and a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe herself, is running for governor of Idaho.

Jordan’s great-grandfather was the distinguished Chief Moses, the lead negotiator of the Sinkiuse-Columbia tribe. His granddaughter — Jordan’s grandmother — sold her family’s cattle so she could charter flights to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of other Native Americans on tribal sovereignty issues.

Being a leader is literally in her DNA, Jordan said.

While these Native women obviously hope to win their races and achieve historic firsts, they all spoke of hoping to make a difference for the Native women who seek political office next.

“Once I’m serving as the first Native American governor elected in this country, it will serve as an example for others to say, ‘Yes, let’s elect more leaders like her. Let’s elect more Debra Haalands and more Paulette Jordans into office,’” Jordan said.

Flanagan said she “couldn’t begin to start to determine what President Trump thinks frankly and why he believes the things he believes.”

“But my job is to hold that door wide open for the people who come after me.”

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