On a scenic island just a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle, Juanita Perez described how she recently lost a race for a delegate seat for the Tlingit and Haida tribes:
“I didn’t have all the tools to do it right,” she said.
It was a last weekend in April and the third day of an advocacy bootcamp hosted by the Native Action Network, a non-profit based in Seattle, Washington. She sat in a circle of more than a dozen local women and spoke about the challenges of running for office as a local woman and the political positions in which they were interested.
The event, a first for the organization, was designed to help more “local women” run for office at all levels.
The 20 participants from 17 different tribes had traveled to the meeting place from all over Washington and Oregon. There was a graduate student, a district board member, a children’s advocate, a Native American education liaison, real estate agents, and an undergraduate student.
Some, like Perez, had already dabbled in the political realm, while others were still familiarizing themselves with the prospect.
But all had their lives on hold as they explored the idea of taking a seat at the decision-making table, which all too often omits local women. And in doing so, they had found a loyal support system in each other.
IIn 2020, the Center for American Women and Politics, which has tracked women’s political nominations for 30 years, identified a record 18 women who identified as Native Americans running for seats in the US Congress, with two winning the House of Representatives. The center’s numbers do not include Yvette Herrell, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation and was elected to the House of Representatives.
The following year, Representative Deb Haaland, a chartered member of the Pueblo of Laguna, became the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history.
But Native American or Alaskan women make up 1.1% of the population, and yet when combined with Native American women, they still make up only 0.2% of all voting members of Congress.
In other words, they continue to be largely excluded from decision-making at the country’s highest levels, although, as Leah Salgado, chief impact officer of the indigenous women-led organization IllumiNative, explained that their “existence is a political issue”.
Now that the country is heading towards the midterm elections, the boot camp aims to build on the momentum of the past few years by creating a space that, unlike many other campaign training sessions, was specific to Native Americans, said Iris Friday, president and co-founder of Native Action Network .
“It makes a huge difference when all of these women come into the room and they have a safe space to have open, honest conversations and dialogue,” she said. “It’s just so impressive to see what comes out at the end of the day.”
There appear to be nine women who identify as Native Americans running for seats in the US Congress in the upcoming election, said Kelly Dittmar, research director for the Center for American Women and Politics, the second-highest number to date. This number could increase as more than 100 women have applied without specifying their race.
Salgado said it’s important to understand the historical context of the country’s indigenous people and political system. Native Americans were not granted citizenship in the United States until 1924, and then it took more than three decades before they were eligible to vote in every state.
“It’s necessary and important for indigenous people to step foot in a place where we educate and make efforts to ensure that indigenous people have access to the political process because we haven’t always had access to it,” she said.
Though still fairly rare, she said she’s noticed a slight increase in workouts like this. But, she said, bringing local women into leadership positions is just one step. It’s also about helping them when they’re there.
“It also has to be about how we make sure that they are supported in all of this because you don’t get elected and then the racism stops,” she said.
IIn a series of in-depth sessions, Bootcamp attendees were taught about fundraising, Pacs, communication styles, and crafting their own message. They heard from Washington State Senator Mona Das, a Democrat, and Suquamish Tribe Councilor Windy Anderson.
On Saturday morning, a professional photographer took their headshots. On Sunday, her pockets were full of books like Stacey Abrams’ Lead from the Outside and Amanda Litman’s Run for Something.
Every day the women sat at long wooden tables and shared their meals. There were spontaneous discussions about the revitalization of the indigenous language and blood quanta. In the evenings they spent the night together in nearby lodges.
They will complete at least three additional training sessions in the coming months, including one on public speaking in July.
Lafaitele Faitalia, 38, of Tongan and Samoan origin, is considering running for the Washington State House. The training taught her to show her authentic self, she said, while also helping her understand Pacs and the daunting prospect of fundraising.
“If you are not exposed to the political systems in the US; if you don’t know what it looks like [or about] Navigating these systems but wanting to change something and run for office is going to be intimidating,” said Faitalia, who is chief in Samoa and serves on the Washington State Commission on Asia-Pacific Affairs.
Lisa Young, 59, who is Tlingit and Navajo, worked as the city’s finance director for 15 years but is now considering campaigning for the city council in her small hometown of Redmond, Oregon. She said she wanted to give a voice to the small indigenous population, along with their other minorities and immigrants.
“[Being] It’s been a place where I’ve been able to recharge my batteries and say that I can be that person of ministry, even though I know there will be obstacles,” she said. “I think these women have strengthened me a bit. Enough to say, OK, I’m less scared today than I was before.”
Claudia Kauffman, vice president and co-founder of the Native Action Network, is intimately familiar with what it’s like to be a Native American running for political office. In 2007, she became the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the Washington State Senate.
But, she said, it was a moment more than 25 years ago when she worked for Indigenous activist Bernie Whitebear who helped her run. They were in the state capital of Olympia, meeting with lawmakers to try and get funding for after-school programs for local children.
“They’re just people like you and me,” he told her.
She recalls thinking, “If these are only people, why not me?”
Now, through this advocacy bootcamp, she’s trying to have a similar impact on these local women, no matter what type of position they aspire to.
“Our job, our duty, is to educate future leaders, the next generation of leaders that we have in our community that we know are strong, resilient and committed,” she said.
When organizers asked the group on day three of the training if they were inspired to run for office, six women raised their hands and two others said they wanted to see if they could get seats on boards and commissions.
Perhaps just as important was how quickly the women had become staunch supporters of one another.
On that last day of boot camp, when Perez described losing the race, participants responded with messages of support within seconds.
One encouraged her to grow taller when her tribal community was not receptive to her. Another said she had ties to the tribe and offered to help. Then a third said to her: “You are not alone.”