On ‘Native Election Night,’ I Know My Mother Would Have Been Proud

While covering the midterms from Minnesota, I couldn't help but feel the pride my mother would have felt had she lived to see this day.

[photo: Peggy Flanagan stands with her daughter.]
Peggy Flanagan, newly elected lieutenant governor of Minnesota, and her daughter. Mary Annette Pember

Although I’ve covered a number of emotionally charged stories, I don’t often cry during the course of reporting. It’s not so much that I’m such a tough old journalist, but more that the work itself requires one’s full attention if done correctly; emotions get temporarily pushed to the side.

When Peggy Flanagan, newly elected lieutenant governor of Minnesota, began her victory speech (alongside Governor-elect Tim Walz) with words from my native Ojibwe language, however, I couldn’t hold back my tears of pride. Flanagan, who was speaking at the Democratic victory party in downtown St. Paul, is of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the first Native American woman elected to the office of lieutenant governor in Minnesota.

Her win was among many firsts for Native women last week. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, both Democrats, became the first Native women elected to Congress. Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation was elected by voters in Kansas; Haaland of the Pueblo of Laguna won in New Mexico. Davids is also the first openly lesbian person from Kansas elected to Congress.

The election as a whole was an extraordinary first for Native Americans. According to Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, more than 100 Native American candidates, 52 of them women, ran for public office. Trahant of the Shoshone Bannock Tribe has been tracking Native participation in politics for years.

This year Trahant devised a bold plan: Native journalists would provide live election night coverage of many of the Native candidates. On a less than shoestring budget, about 40 Native journalists, myself included, fanned out across Indian Country. Armed with mobile phones, Skype, and help from cousins and friends, we helped provided authentic, on-the-ground reporting about this historic election. I traveled to Minnesota to cover the two Ojibwe women who were running, Republican Donna Bergstrom and Flanagan.

After the exhausting, thrilling night was over Trahant said, “If anyone in a news company ever, ever says, ‘I can’t find anyone [Native] when hiring, I’ll make them sit and watch [our video].’”

Although we struggled a bit with technical issues, the experience reminded me of my mother and all the scrappy, resilient Native women who came before me.

My mother, Bernice, passed away in 2011, but she seemed to be at my side during the entire reporting process. She was a tiny, tough Bad River Ojibwe woman, a Shinnob-Ikwe, who believed that voting and participation in the democratic process were sacred rights and duties. One of my earliest memories is of joining her in the voting booth during the 1960 presidential election.

Indeed, voting that day was a sacred experience. She allowed me to push the lever that released a privacy curtain as she cast her vote. There she explained, “I am voting for the man who will stand up for the Indian people.”

“We each have one vote; we won’t ever let them take that away from us. You remember that, now, my girl,” she said.

As we opened the magic curtain and walked out, I loudly declared, “We voted for [candidate’s name], didn’t we mom?!”

I was confused by the adults’ laughter, but I never forgot that sacred moment in the voting booth.

My mother volunteered for her party’s women’s committee during an era when few women and almost no women of color did so. She worked tirelessly to encourage our relatives and others to vote. Remaining ignorant of politics and not voting were simply not options in our home.

Later, she traveled with women on the committee to Washington, D.C. The cost of the journey and her absence were hardships for our family; I disliked staying with the neighbors in their crowded home as my father worked his usual long hours. But she met the president; she shook his hand!

No one had the power to keep her away; we were so proud of her.

Raised and educated in a Catholic Indian boarding school, my mother often spoke bitterly of the racism and message of inferiority she experienced there at the hands of the nuns. But she was a good student and graduated from high school. Despite the discrimination and marginalization of her youth, she forever held dear the lessons learned in civics class about democracy and the U.S. Constitution. These rules, these principles applied to both Indians and white folks. The right to vote, to be recognized equally, was a primary guiding light in her world; she held this right and duty as her torch.

And so, I couldn’t help but think of her this year when Native people turned out in record numbers to vote despite voter suppression laws in North Dakota.

Although the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 ensured citizenship for all Native peoples born in the United States, the act did not automatically guarantee voting rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed exclusionary practices to deny or abridge the right of any U.S. citizen to vote, but Native people have faced ongoing voter suppression.

Natalie Landreth of the Chickasaw Nation and staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund noted that Native people have always had to fight to vote. Native people have had to issue their own identification, buy voting machines for those living in rural areas, and withstand opposition to mailed ballots, according to Landreth.

“We as Indigenous people always find a way. We’ve been through an enormous amount and we aren’t going to be kept down by these efforts to suppress our votes,” she said in the Native Election Night Live video.

While covering this election, I saw my mother’s strength and determination in the face of Native women like Jolene Jones of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Nation. Jones and other volunteers from the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis organized the “Make Voting a Tradition” campaign that targeted homeless people, including residents of the Wall of Forgotten Natives.

The wall is home to about 300 homeless, mostly Native people in Minneapolis, who are camping alongside a freeway. Jones and volunteers provided rides and support for those who wanted to register and vote.

I also saw my mother reflected in the words of Oklahoma Democratic state legislator Anastasia Pittman of the Seminole Tribe, who ran for lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, but lost to Republican Matt Pinnell.

Responding to why so many Native women ran for office this election she said, “Maybe it’s like what Esther said in the Bible, ‘We were put here for such a time as this.’”

“If nothing else, our daughters will know that they can do this too,” she added.

Flanagan responded to the same question during an earlier interview, “Native women have been leaders since time immemorial; when there is distress or problems, we roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

I felt my mother’s presence there in the hotel ballroom in St. Paul during Flanagan’s victory speech when she said, “Chi Miigwech, thank you very much.”

“Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me in a position of government leadership. My hope tonight is that my victory shows young Native and people of color that you can grow up and lead this state,” she added.

As with other politicians, I will hold all winners of this election accountable; that’s my job as a journalist. But for this brief moment as the dust is settling, I can’t help but feel the pride my mother would have felt had she lived to see this day. Her spirit is with me. I couldn’t keep her away even if I tried.