Joe Garry was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1957. He was, of course, the first American Indian to serve in that body. A decade later he moved up to the state Senate and later ran for the U.S. Senate in 1960 and again in 1962. Also a first. He also was a member and later chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council and president of the National Congress of American Indians.
A few months after he died in 1975, I was covering the Idaho Democratic Party convention for the Sho-Ban News. The party chairman that year was Leona Garry, a Lakota woman, and Joe’s widow. I recall her passion for the political process and for the importance of adding new voices.
One of Garry’s nieces, Jeanne Givens, was elected to the Idaho House in 1982. She was the first American Indian woman to serve. And, like her uncle, she challenged the status quo with a bid for Congress in 1988.
Four years ago another Coeur d’Alene tribal member, Paulette Jordan, ran for the House seat and lost. But what’s cool is that two years later she ran again. And won. (Previous: Paulette Jordan takes a step toward re-election.) This proves what may be the most important lesson: You gotta run to win. Sometimes more than once. Jordan describes Givens as a mentor who has taught her much about politics.
Rep. Jordan already has influence that travels far beyond her district. Last week, for example, in Boise she stood in solidarity at Boise Pride. “Standing together in a sea of love, it was clear Idaho’s citizens demand far more than what they have been drawn,” she wrote on Facebook. “Life is too short to let ignorance rule society, and far to precious to be overcome with threats and fear. … I stand with those who have been victims of hate crimes here in our own state and I will continue to stand with those who face discrimination in their daily life.”
In the southern part of the state, Larry EchoHawk successfully ran for the legislature in 1982. After serving two terms he ran for, and won, election as the Bannock County attorney. Then another first. In 1990 he was elected Attorney General. (One of the few Native Americans to win a statewide office anywhere.) Four years later he ran for governor of Idaho and lost.
So Idaho has a long history electing a Native Americans to public office. What’s remarkable about that history is that Native Americans barely register a blip in terms of demographics. In the first congressional district, for example, Native American votes are two-tenths of one percent. Statewide there are only about 21,000 Native Americans, roughly one percent of the population. So any winning Native politician must figure out how to build a coalition of voters. (Especially if that candidate is a Democrat. Idaho may be the most Republican state in the United States. Not a single Democrat holds statewide office.)
But in 2016 Jordan will not be the only Native American candidate for the state legislature. Louis Archuleta, Shoshone-Bannock, is running for the state House from the Pocatello area. He was a late entry, winning the May primary as a write-in candidate. He has an extraordinary background as a designer and engineer. He helped some of the ground support systems for the Space Shuttle and was a co-director of Idaho State University’s Young Explorers in Space program.
Archuleta’s Facebook page also promotes his Latino roots, part of an important coalition in Idaho. Archuleta says his “education is the cornerstone of my campaign, my passion is helping Idaho children be the smartest and best prepared pupils in the country.”
There are 105 members of the Idaho legislature. So two Native candidates is a big deal. Why? Because if both get elected that would be double the state’s percentage of Native American people. And why not? As I wrote above: Idaho is not a state with a large Native American population. But there is a history of success.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReportsShare on Facebook