Published October 31, 2016
It’s an understatement to say that North Dakota is making history.
The rush to build a new oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Illinois, was supposed to be routine. It was designed to avoid most regulation, especially federal oversight, and get built without fanfare. But when that route was moved so that it crossed under the Missouri River near the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribeeverything changed. The issue united Indian Country in a way that’s unprecedented. While the state and the company are making history, too, by writing a soon-to-be case study about how not to handle a crisis.
But there is another chapter. No state in the history of the United States has ever had three Native Americans running as major party nominees for statewide offices. To put that in perspective in recent years: Larry EchoHawk, Pawnee, ran for attorney general (he won) and governor of Idaho (he lost). Byron Mallott, Tlingit, is the Lt. Gov. of Alaska, and Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, is Supt. of Public Instruction in Montana. There have been a few others candidates, but my point is they are scattered, one candidate is a big deal. So three Native American candidates is beyond extraordinary.
I have been criss-crossing North Dakota in recent days with Chase Iron Eyes, Ruth Buffalo, and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun for public conversations on a range of issues. We started in Bismarck Thursday, Fargo on Friday, Grand Forks Saturday, and we will conclude in Minot today. Iron Eyes is running for Congress. Buffalo for the state’s insurance commissioner. And, Hunte-Beaubrun is running for the Public Service Commission, the agency that would regulate pipelines. They are running on the North Dakota Democratic-NonPartisan League Party ticket.
North Dakota is a huge state. Thursday night’s event alone meant I had to return home at about 1 am (and getting up again a couple of hours later to write). I want to point that out for one reason: These three candidates have kept this kind of schedule for months. The sacrifice of time, money, and just the stamina required, is remarkable.
Iron Eyes travels the state’s roadways pulling a cargo trailer with his campaign signs inside and on display outside. It’s probably his most visible campaign advertising. On Saturday he made certain to park his vehicle where the University of North Dakota was playing football. More eyeballs. His fundraising is authentic grass roots. He posted on Facebook: “16,227 people have contributed an average of $3.80 to our campaign. Send $3.80 today!”
Three. Dollars. Eighty. That’s it. Think of what that means in a world where the wealthy write checks and buy access to politicians from both parties.
Ruth Buffalo may be the hardest working candidate in the history of North Dakota. Every time you open Facebook you see her knocking on doors, making telephone calls, or supporting the other candidates running. When people look at her resume, her background, she is clearly prepared for this job. As Greg Stites, a former counsel for the North Dakota Insurance Commission, wrote in The Grand Forks Herald: “Ruth Buffalo is the best candidate for the job, with an academic background essentially built for the role of insurance commissioner. She holds a master’s degree in public health from North Dakota State University. Her depth of knowledge of the health and insurance needs of our state are unmatched by her opponents. And her accomplishments do not end there.”
And there is not only history, but irony, in Hunte-Beaubrun’s candidacy for the very agency that would regulate pipelines in North Dakota. She’s from Cannonball. This dispute is her community; her water. Imagine how history would be different if on a regulatory agency there was one person who could object to a routine pipeline drawing.
The rules would be different “because we would have a seat at that table,” Hunte-Beaubrun said. “We’d be able to aid in the process of creating those rules and regulations (and) we would be able to help everyone understand culturally where we’re coming from.”
There could have been a solution without a controversy. Win, win.
And that’s why representation is so critical. We have so many states, counties, cities, where decisions have been made without even hearing a Native voice, let alone considering what’s said. That’s not democracy. And will no longer work in a country where the demographics are changing rapidly.
Yes, it’s historic that three Native Americans are running for statewide offices. But what you know what’s cooler than that? The trend is only beginning. Even better think about what history that could still be created. What if everyone in Indian Country, every ally, everyone who wants change, saw the merit of voting for a candidate who’s proud of contributions measured in pocket coins instead of the million-dollar access that we’ve come to accept as normal?
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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