At least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians serve in 17 state legislatures.
This is important for a couple of reasons.
First, if you look at the body of work of these state senators and representatives, you’ll find them advocating for better services, more funding and improving relationships between tribal nations and state governments. Second, state offices are a source of talent for higher elective posts, ranging from Congress to the White House. Remember it was in only 1996 when Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate.
Montana best demonstrates the growing influence of Native American voters.
Denise Juneau, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, is currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes and grew up in Browning, Montana, in the Blackfeet Nation. Juneau has a political track record. She’s already won two state-wide contests so she knows what it takes to win a House seat.
This is how U.S. politics often works: A candidate wins at the state level, does a good a job, and then she moves on to Congress (or is appointed to a federal post, such as Secretary of Education).
The Montana story is richer than Juneau alone. Some twenty years ago, Montana was much like any other state with a significant Native American population with only one or two Native Americans serving in the legislature. Then Native American candidate won in 1997. And again in 2003. And by 2007 Native Americans in Montana reached ten seats in the legislature; representing 6.6 percent of that body. Montana’s population is 7.4 percent Native American. Today there are 3 Native Americans in the Senate and 5 in the House, some 5.3 percent of the state legislature.
To put the Montana percentage in national terms: If Congress were 5.3 percent Native American, there would be 5 U.S. Senators and 21 members of the House. Even if you adjust for population, the number of Native American members of Congress would have to more than double to equal the representation in Montana.
It’s telling that when Brookings Institution researched the historical demographics for members of Congress it did not even bother to measure Native Americans. There are two tribal members currently serving in Congress and, so far, this election season, there are at least seven Native American candidates for Congress.