Standing in front of her high school English class on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota for the first time, Denise Juneau was struck by the responsibility. Looking at the sea of faces in front of her, she knew many of them faced challenges that posed barriers to their education, but she also knew that, as a teacher, she was in a position to help.
That was 20 years ago, when Juneau, an enrolled member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribes, was about to embark on a lifelong career in education.
“I have a deep respect for teachers,” she says—a respect that she believes has informed her two terms as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction.
That job—to which she was first elected in 2008—made Juneau the first Native American woman in the country to win statewide executive office, and now she’s attempting to make history once again. One hundred years after Montana voters elected the first woman to Congress, the state’s voters may make Juneau, 49, the first Native American woman to serve there.
Juneau said she wasn’t aware of her campaign’s historic potential eight years ago. But this time around, that fact looms much larger. “Especially, when I travel to Indian Country, people see a possibility,” she says. “It’s this hope and optimism that our diversity is reflected in places of power.”
Across the West and the country, 2016 is proving to be a historic year for Native candidates. Eight people, including two incumbents, are running for U.S. Congress, while nearly 80 Native candidates are seeking state office. As the presidential race has demonstrated, 2016 is the year for outsiders, and no group can be considered further from the establishment than Native Americans. If Juneau and her fellow candidates can ride this wave and effectively navigate this non-traditional election cycle, it could prove to be a turning point of sorts for this historically underrepresented demographic.
Juneau spent most of her childhood on the Blackfeet Reservation in the isolated northern Montana town of Browning, which has been marked by unemployment and poverty despite its shared border with Glacier National Park. Her parents, educators themselves, understood the value of the electoral process and frequently registered and encouraged Native Americans to vote. By the time Juneau was in her twenties, her mother had won a seat in Montana’s Legislature.
Juneau attended Montana State University and earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University in 1994. She said her time at Harvard opened her to new people, cultures, and ways of navigating the world. But it also confirmed her love for the West’s wide-open landscapes, and after she earned her degree, she returned to start her teaching career.
After teaching for a few years in North Dakota and Montana, she accepted a position as the Indian Education Specialist at the Montana Office of Public Instruction to oversee the implementation of the Indian Education for All Act—a bill her mother sponsored that provided funding for educating Montana students about Native American culture. Unfortunately, the bill’s mandate wasn’t enforced, funding lagged, and she eventually left to attend law school.
But after a 2004 Supreme Court decision forced the state to fund the program, Juneau, who had been practicing law, returned to the Office of Public Instruction. “When you include Indian people it makes a huge difference,” she says. “When I see young people learning about each other and their history and their backgrounds and their way of life, a lot of barriers get broken down, and that’s where we can see each other as human beings and overcome a lot of challenges.”
The experience, too, taught her about the intersection of politics and policy, so when the superintendent seat opened up in 2008, she saw an opportunity to make a difference for Montana’s 140,000 K-12 students. Since she was elected, high school graduation rates have increased to record levels: 86 percent in 2015, with the dropout rate down to 3.4 percent, a 33 percent decline since 2009.
Her campaign for Congress, however, has forced her to broaden her focus. So far, her main issue has been the protection of public lands. Juneau is attempting to draw a sharp contrast with her opponent, first-term Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, who recently voted for a bill that would transfer management authority to states for as much as 4 million acres of national forest land.
But if her platform has been sparing, her campaign seems to be less focused on what she’s about than on who she is. In an overwhelmingly white state with seven Indian reservations (comprising roughly 9 percent of the state’s land mass) and which has not elected a woman to Congress since Jeannette Rankin’s second term nearly 75 years ago, Juneau embodies evolving attitudes and a new direction in a historically conservative state.
Until recently, Native Americans have participated in electoral politics at relatively low rates. Native Americans were not granted the right to vote until 1924, and since then a combination of local voting laws, disinterest, and geographical barriers have effectively discouraged Native Americans—especially those on reservations—from voting. Even in Glacier County, whose population is 65 percent Native American and includes the Blackfeet Reservation, only 45 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in 2014—10 percentage points below the state average. In 2012, Glacier County’s turnout was 12 percentage points below the rest of the state.
With low turnout among Native voters, elected officials have had less incentive to listen to the concerns of their Native constituents, which has naturally had the effect of further discouraging these communities from participating in the political process. “Traditionally, we [Native Americans] worry about state and federal elections about as much as state and federal candidates worry about tribal elections,” says Chase Iron Eyes, a Native American activist who is now running for North Dakota’s lone Congressional seat. And this has also been one of the reasons that Native American interests have often been ignored. “It’s important that we assert our voice. Otherwise we get left out,” he adds.
In 2012, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota won her first term to the U.S. Senate by less than one percentage point, and many analysts credited the Native American vote with her victory. For North Dakota and other states that were taking note, Heitkamp’s election highlighted the potential of engaging Indian communities across the state, creating an atmosphere in which North Dakota’s Democratic Party could nominate a non-traditional candidate like Iron Eyes, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux.
Iron Eyes has little experience in mainstream politics, despite his leadership and activism in Native American communities since high school. He launched the website Last Real Indians, which provides Native American thought leaders a platform to express their views on a variety of issues, and helped raise nearly $1 million to purchase 437 acres of sacred land in the Black Hills. He also has served as counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, which works to maintain Lakota community and culture with a special focus on keeping children with their families and out of the foster care system. He believes that his candidacy is a sign of changing times. “It’s a signifier that we are evolving as a country and society,” he says.
In North Dakota, Native candidates are running for a variety of statewide and local offices, including the public service commission, insurance commission, and state Legislature. In Montana, if all 10 Native candidates win their races for the state Legislature, the percentage of the state’s Native American lawmakers will surpass the percentage of the state’s Native population, which stands at 6.5 percent.
Although voter turnout among Natives continues to lag behind other demographics, Iron Eyes is confident that his candidacy, along with that of other Native candidates, will drive more Native Americans to the polls this November. “We have a leadership legacy, and now we’re seeing a rebirth,” he says.
Georgene Louis, a member of the Acoma Pueblo, who has represented a largely Hispanic district in Albuquerque, New Mexico, since 2013, agrees. When asked if she sees herself as a Native American politician, she thinks for a minute before responding with a definitive “Yes.”
“It’s significant for kids to be able to see someone who looks like them and be able to identify and understand that this is something that’s important to our community,” she says.
In New Mexico, where the pueblos are fully enmeshed in the state’s mainstream culture, Native American issues are generally better recognized and understood, but Louis also believes there is much room for improvement. To her mind, because Native Americans are so underrepresented, they are uniquely equipped to benefit a broad cross-section of society. “There are so many challenges that we face, and if people are able to help with all of these issues, we’re also going to help others.”
For Native Americans who pay more attention to tribal politics and elections, their connection to county, state, and federal governments can seem tenuous. Years of being oppressed and ignored by these institutions have caused many to focus on their own communities instead. But with a record number of Native American candidates running for federal office to serve as role models for the next generation, many in Indian Country have hope for what the future may bring.
Not surprisingly for Juneau, it’s all about education. “We have more educated Natives, probably more than any time in history, and they’re moving around a lot. They’re seeing that there’s more connections to be made and they want to be part of that,” she says.
From these experiences outside reservations, younger Natives can start to understand the positive role that state and federal governments can have in their lives, and that has produced a new sense of optimism. “It’s going to be an entirely different way of leading when we can all get along and understand each other a little bit better,” Juneau adds.
Her candidacy, along with that of Iron Eyes and the five other Native candidates running for Congress, holds the potential to realize the perceived changes taking place. If seven of the eight candidates win their respective elections, Native representation in the U.S. House would accurately reflect the country’s Indian population. Considering the same is not true for women or other minority groups, this achievement would be notable. These efforts signify an investment in a new generation of Native American leaders that has the energy and know-how to shape a more positive future, not only for Indian Country but for the entire nation.