American Indian Political Representation: An Update on Congressional Races Across America

By Ben Cornelius
Associate Editor, Volume 23

 
The highest achieving American Indian in U.S. politics was Kaw-Osage-Pottawatomie Charles Curtis. Curtis was the 31st Vice President of the United States serving with President Herbert Hoover.[1] Curtis started his career as a horse jockey, later attending law school, leading to his election to Congress. He eventually became a prominent member of the Republican party and was chosen as Hoover’s Vice-President.[2]

Of the current 535 members of Congress, only two are members of federally recognized American Indian tribes. Tom Cole of the Chickasaw Nation is currently serving his 8th term as a Republican U.S. Representative for Oklahoma’s 4th District.[3] “Cole is an advocate for a strong national defense, a tireless advocate for taxpayers and small businesses and a leader on issues dealing with Native Americans and tribal governments.”[4] The other Ameircan Indian Congressman is Representative Markwayne Mullin, a Cherokee Republican representing Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District. Mullin is a businessman and a former professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter with a 3-0 record.[5]

Given the dire circumstances on many reservations, increased Native American political representation is vital for the future of Indian Country. American Indians have a 28.3% poverty rate, compared to 15.5% for the nation as whole.[6] Lack of access to quality health care has led to huge disparities in health, for example the post neonatal death rate is over twice that of the U.S. white rate, 4.8 deaths per 1000 live births versus 2.2.[7]  Education is another roadblock, as only 67% of American Indian students graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 80%.[8] Indian issues typically receive little attention in mainstream political dialogue. If there is any attention, it usually involves hostility to Tribal business ventures,[9] business that are vital to many tribes ability to support themselves and provide for tribal members.

Indian nations are hopeful that 2018 will bring more of their own representatives into Congress. In addition to Cole’s and Mullin’s reelection campaigns, five other Indians are working to get elected. Mullin is being challenged by a Cherokee Democrat, and City of Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols.[10] Out of Washington state is Dino Rossi, a Tlingit Republican. Rossi is known for his work to help balance Washington state’s budget as a State Senator.[11] J.D. Colbert, another Congressional hopeful, is a Chickasaw Democrat and banker running in Texas. He has spoken recently on the need for peace and reconciliation in the transition to a diversifying America.[12]

Two Indian women are also running for Congress – if elected they would be the first Native American women to serve in Congress.[13] Navajo Carol Surveyor is running as a Democrat in Utah’s 2nd District.[14] She cites the murder of her mother as a primary drive for her political ambitions[15] as violence against Indians by non-Indian perpetrators, particularly against Indian women, is very prevalent on reservations, and is a high item on her priority list.[16] “This is exactly why it’s so important for there to be representation for all in Congress — including Native American women. We know there is a problem. We need more data and we need solutions. And that cannot be done without more voices where decisions are made.”[17] Debra Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo woman is running as a Democrat in New Mexico’s 1st District. Haaland was the former director of New Mexico’s Democratic Party.[18] She is also the former chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation, which runs her Tribe’s gaming enterprises and other businesses.[19] Haaland has endorsements from Navajo Nation Vice-President Jonathan Nez, as well as Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, among others.[20]

Besides seeking elected office, Indians are also finding other ways to sway government policy in their favor. Many tribes have increased their spending on lobbying, and in 2014 Native American tribes spent an all-time high of 24.7 million dollars on government relations.[21]

With only 1.6% of the U.S. population, gaining more political power remains an uphill battle for Native Americans, but Cole, Mullin, Haaland, and the rest of the 2018 Native Congressional candidates are looking to do their part.


[1] Ernie C. Salgado Jr., CHARLES CURTIS (1860-1936), California Indian Education, http://www.californiaindianeducation.org/famous_indians/charles_curtis/.

[2] Id.

[3] U.S. H.R., Biography, House, https://cole.house.gov/about/full-biography. (last visited Oct. 23, 2017).

[4] Id.

[5] U.S. H.R., Biography, House, https://mullin.house.gov/biography/. (last visited Oct. 23, 2017).

[6] Facts for Features: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2015, United States Census Bureau, (November 02, 2015), https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2015/cb15-ff22.html.

[7] Michelle Sarche and Paul Spicer, Poverty and Health Disparities for American Indian and Alaska Native Children: Current Knowledge and Future Prospects, National Center for Biotechnology Information, (June 1, 2009) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2567901Bottom of Form.

[8] Lauren Camera, Native American Students Left Behind, US News, (November 6, 2015), https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/11/06/native-american-students-left-behind.

[9] Trump administration erects new hurdle for off-reservation casinos, Indianz, (April 13, 2017), https://www.indianz.com/IndianGaming/2017/04/13/trump-administration-erects-new-hurdle-f.asp.

[10] Mark Trahant, #NativeVote18 field grows with seven Native candidates for Congress, Indianz, (September 25, 2017), https://www.indianz.com/News/2017/09/25/mark-trahant-nativevote18-field-grows-wi.asp.

[11] Id.

[12] J.D. Colbert, The coming of the Third American Dynasty, Tulsa World, (February 1, 2017), http://www.tulsaworld.com/opinion/opinionfeatured/j-d-colbert-the-coming-of-the-third-american-dynasty/article_ea6a6226-8d3e-551e-822f-d9d57b915eb5.html.

[13] Trahant, supra note 4

[14] Navajo Nation citizen Carol Surveyor announces run for Congress in Utah, Indianz, (July 24, 2017), https://www.indianz.com/News/2017/07/24/navajo-nation-citizen-carol-surveyor-ann.asp.

[15] Id.

[16] Andre B. Rosay, Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men, National Institute of Justice, (October 19, 2016), https://nij.gov/journals/277/Pages/violence-against-american-indians-alaska-natives.aspx.

[17] Trahant, supra note 4

[18] Andrew Oxford, Haaland, ex-Democratic Party leader, running for Congress, The Taos News, (May 4, 2017), http://www.taosnews.com/stories/haaland-ex-democratic-party-leader-running-for-congress,40229.

[19] Id.

[20] Vice President of Navajo Nation Endorses Deb Haaland for Congress, Deb For Congress, (September 21, 2017), https://debforcongress.com/deb-for-congress-news/2017/9/21/vice-president-of-navajo-nation-endorses-deb-haaland-for-congress

[21] Kate Ackley, Tribal Lobbying Is Booming After Abramoff Scandal, (November 15, 2015), https://www.rollcall.com/news/policy/indian-tribal-lobbying-booming-abramoff-scandal.

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