We are compelled to discuss the urgent need to support Indigenous candidates running for office ahead of the 2024 election and beyond. Recent bipartisan legislative retirements of American Indian Caucus members leave a significant void of expertise on matters of state-tribal policy, with no clear replacements emerging. In addition, we are particularly concerned by the complete lack of support for the candidacy of Barbara Bessette (Chippewa-Cree, HD20) from within her own party, who was one of the first urban Indigenous members elected to the Montana state legislature. The legislature is best served by a diversity of Indigenous voices, but neither party has taken serious efforts to help Indigenous candidates succeed.
According to 2020 U.S. Census data and the Advance Native Political Leadership research, Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian peoples make up just 0.03% of elected officials, while comprising at least 3.4% of the total U.S. population. While the Montana legislature exceeded parity during the past legislative session only, this has not always been the case. It also does not account for the lack of representation in the numerous other elected offices in our state.
The history of Indigenous peoples in Montana mirrors our history with America––through colonization, Indigenous people have been exploited and still experience ongoing erasure. As Montana struggles with a long overdue social reckoning, we believe it is past time to make changes for inadequate representation and collectively work to overcome the structural barriers that prevent Indigenous people from receiving adequate representation in our current electoral system.
Native people were not granted citizenship until 1924. Despite nearly 100 years having passed, Indigenous people in Montana still suffer from relentless efforts to silence our votes and mitigate our political power. As we approach this century mark, there is no more important time to uplift and invest in Indigenous candidates pursuing elected office in our state. Racism runs rampant in our political climate, and Indigenous people know that these are not the values of this land. The origins of what is now known as “Montana” starts with Indigenous people—the same people who have stewarded this land since time immemorial and will continue to do so for generations to come.
The political issues pertinent to Indigenous people are issues critical to the health of our state and of our communities. We demand that both political parties make concerted efforts to recruit Indigenous candidates; we demand that both political parties prioritize cultivating the cultural expertise that is critical to crafting informed state-tribal policy; we demand that both political parties uplift, celebrate, and invest in Indigenous voices.
Ronnie Jo Horse
Western Native Voice