Native legislators tell their own stories via social media

Rep. Shane Morigeau said it was an honor to wear Joe McDonald’s headdress for his swearing-in. (Facebook photo)

Updated: Many Native Americans who were elected across the country in November took office this week.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye and Mark Trahant

What happens after the election? That’s a question we used to wonder about, too. A couple of years ago that would mean calling up a hundred legislators and executives asking, “what’s new?”

But social media means you don’t have to do that. You can peek into their world in real time. A look at some of the Native legislators across the country, telling their own stories.

Ruth Buffalo, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara
North Dakota House, District 27

Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, showed up ready to work. Then not many first year legislators are in Newsweek. “On November 6, Buffalo unseated State Representative Randy Boehning, who had championed the state’s voter ID law that many Native Americans viewed as an attempt to suppress their votes. Under the law passed by the North Dakota Supreme Court two weeks before the midterms, citizens in North Dakota were required to have a residential address in order to vote—a post office box was no longer enough,” Newsweek reported.

“It's been unexpected, but throughout it all I just keep thinking of what my ancestors went through for us to be here today and I hope I'm making them proud,” she told Newsweek. “There is so much work that needs to be done to make sure our future generations are well taken care of in terms of a more prosperous future for everyone, which includes safe and strong communities.”

Buffalo has already submitted two bills to the North Dakota House regarding missing and murdered Indigenous people and one about the inclusion of tribal regalia and “objects of cultural significance.” A third bill would make it clear that Native American high-school are free to wear their regalia to graduation and other school-sponsored events. She reports: “Co-sponsors of bill are equally from both sides of the ‘aisle,’ bipartisan support.”

The Montana dozen

No state has as more representation of Native people than does the Montana legislature, 11 tribal citizens and a caucus of 12. To put that in perspective: That’s a percentage of 7.333 percent. If that proportion were in Congress, there would 39 members total in the House and Senate.

Shane Morigeau, Confederated Salish and Kootenai
Montana State Representative, District 95

Former Salish Kootenai College President Joe McDonald lent his headdress to Rep. Morigeau for his swearing-in day. Morigeau said, “I’m officially back at it for my second session and looking forward to working tirelessly for my district and all of Montana.”

After publishing this story, Morigeau introduced a bill, his first for the year. "HB 173 extends our sexual assault laws to school employees, school contractors, or independent contractors that abuse their position of power and prey on students," he wrote on social media. "A relationship with a student is not only unprofessional, but should be criminal. Our schools should be a safe learning place for students and parents should expect their children to be protected when they send their child off to school."

Rae Peppers, Crow
Montana State Representative, District 41

Rae Peppers just got sworn in on Monday and has already said, “In 2020 I will run for the Senate.”

Rae Peppers, Crow (Facebook)

James Ramos, Serrano/Cahuilla

Assemblyman James Ramos has already made history. He’s the first California Indian elected to the legislature.

“It is an incredible honor to have this opportunity to represent the 40th Assembly District,” Ramos said. “We celebrate today, but tomorrow we roll up our sleeves and get to work. I will use my experience of 13 years of local government, including my tenure serving on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, to leverage resources from Sacramento to bring to our community and prioritize my efforts to foster economic development, address homelessness, advocate for homeless youth, social bullying, promote technical trades apprentice programs, improve education access and keep our neighborhoods safe.”

To that end, Ramos introduced legislation to address social bullying to provide students a safe, supporting learning environment.

Tiffany Zulkosky, Yup’ik
Alaska State Representative, District 38

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky gears up for the legislative session and is probably in Juneau by now. She encourages constituents to visit with her while she’s in the city.

Lynn DeCoite, Native Hawaiian
Hawaii State Representative, District 13

DeCoite is taking some tours around the community, such as the Manufacturing Assistance Grant Tour, where she is learning “how government and business work together to help our local economy.”

Mary Kunesh-Podein, Standing Rock
Minnesota State Representative, District 41B

About 45 minutes ago, or yesterday afternoon by the time you read this, Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein tweeted about introducing a bill for missing and murdered Indigenous people. She also signed her name to 13 others bills.

Jamie Becker-Finn, Leech Lake Ojibwe
Minnesota State Representative, District 42B

Jamie Becker-Finn voiced the need for more staff at the fire department in Roseville, Minnesota to the city’s council. “@RosevilleMN_FD handled ~5,000 calls for service last year. In 2006, it was only ~1,000. Staffing levels have not increased, despite increased need.”

She also attended a policy conference that showed the statistics for the state’s low employment. Along with Kunesh-Podein, she introduced seven bills.

Georgene Louis, Acoma Pueblo
New Mexico State Representative, District 26

Georgene Louis hosted a pre-session town hall meeting with Rep. Patricia Royball Caballero, Piro Manso Tiwa, and Sen. Linda Lopez yesterday.

Chelsey Branham, Chickasaw and Cherokee
Oklahoma State Representative, District 83

Rep. Chelsey Branham was sworn-in in November and a month later talked about what’s on the list for legislature in 2019. She is focused on criminal justice reform, poverty, domestic violence, and education.

Tamara St. John, Sisseton Wahpeton
South Dakota State Representative, District 1

Tamara St. John took her oath last weekend. “Now we begin! Thank you District 1!” she wrote on social media.

Andi Clifford, Northern Arapaho
Wyoming State Representative, District 33

Wyoming Rep. Andi Clifford said she had a lot to learn “but, I am learning! Once I get the process down, watch out!” Her first task were official training sessions, including ones for anti-discrimination and ethics training. “Eighteen legislators across the nation had to resign or leave their respective legislative bodies due to discrimination or harassment,” she posted on Facebook.

Jamesita Peshlakai, Navajo
Arizona State Senate, District 7

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai pictured with Shaandiin P. Parrish at the Arizona State Capitol.

Victoria Steele, Seneca
Arizona State Senate, District 9

If you didn’t know, Rep. Victoria Steele hosts a weekly podcast called The Steele Report. Yes, she’s in public office and keeps busy with her podcast. Most, if not all, of her podcasts are conversations with legislators.

Along with her podcast, she did find time to visit with some students from Tucson on inauguration day last weekend.

​On January 18, she’s speaking at an Equal Rights Amendment Forum in Phoenix.

MINNESOTA LT. GOV.

Peggy Flanagan, White Earth
Lt. Governor of Minnesota

Besides gaveling the Minnesota Senate into session, students upon students met with the Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan. One group from the Youth in Government, another what looks to be an environmental group and the last are journalists from her hometown St. Louis Park. She also stopped by the attorney general’s office to “compare notes, catch up." The attorney general ensured his constituents, “We’re working, ya’ll!”

CONGRESS

Tom Cole, Chickasaw
Congressman of Oklahoma, District 4

Rep. Tom Cole talked with MSNBC for eight minutes about the government shutdown.

Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee
Congressman of Oklahoma, District 2

Congressman Mullin supports the president's "continued efforts to build the wall and secure our border" because "the crisis at our southern border is growing more urgent" and it puts "migrants and law-abiding citizens at risk." With the shutdown affecting many doctors at Indian Health Service, Mullin introduced the HR 195 bill on Jan. 4 to remove IHS hospitals and doctors out of the shutdown because "the federal government has treaties to uphold."

Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo
Congresswoman of New Mexico, District 1

In the past week, Rep. Deb Haaland spoke with CNN about Congressman Matt Gaetz calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren "Sacagawea." She addressed the impact of shutdown on New Mexicans with MSNBC yesterday.

Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk
Congresswoman of Kansas, District 3

Davids is also on board with ending the government shutdown and talked with NPR Weekend about its effects on Native communities. Her co-sponsored bill addresses four big issues that focuses on a "return to a government that's of/for/by the people."

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter - @jourdanbb. Email - jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports. Email: mtrahant@IndianCountryToday.com

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