FARGO — Waylon Pretends Eagle wasn’t planning on running for treasurer of North Dakota’s Democratic Party. But as nominations for the executive committee began, he changed his mind.
“It was just an impromptu decision,’’ he said. “I said, 'I'm going to try. I have to.’’’
Pretends Eagle, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, better known as MHA, ran for the position of treasurer in April. He won, along with Angel Young, of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and MHA, who won the position of secretary. Two other Native Americans ran for executive positions but weren't successful. Together, Pretends Eagle and Young follow in the footsteps of now state legislator Ruth Buffalo, who became the first Native American on the committee in 2017.
Native Americans have begun capturing the spotlight in the political realm following the November midterm elections, which saw the most diverse group of candidates and the most Native Americans to ever run for federal public office. Deb Haaland from New Mexico and Sharice Davids from Kansas became the first native women sworn into Congress in January. At the state level, Peggy Flanagan became the first Native American lieutenant governor of Minnesota, and Ruth Buffalo became the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature.
That momentum has spread even more to the local level in North Dakota, Buffalo said, adding that it's "refreshing" to see more participation locally amid increased national participation.
To gain her seat representing Fargo, Buffalo defeated Randy Boehning, the main sponsor of the voter ID law Native Americans fear will cause disenfranchisement. As for the law, a federal judge ruled in November in favor of it, and from that decision, nonprofit North Dakota Native Vote came into existence, said the group's field director Nicole Donaghy.
Donaghy noted the increased political participation from Native Americans in North Dakota since the ruling. She said having four Native Americans run in the Democratic party’s executive committee selection was “very significant,” as “it’s not every day you get that many native people running for an internally elected seat.”
Pretends Eagle said his new position with the state’s Democratic party is a step in the right direction for tribal citizens as “there is a need for more representation at that level.”
“We are a voice in this state, and we do have a pretty good presence, so it should be represented as such,” he said.
In the North Dakota Legislature, only two — or 1.4% of the 141-person governing body — are Native American, according to data collected by Indian Country Today Editor Mark Trahant. But Census data shows the group makes up 6.5% of the state’s population. Trahant noted that North and South Dakota are both below parity in Native American representation, while neighboring state Minnesota is at parity and Montana is above.
“Having a say is essential for a working democracy,’’ Trahant said. "The native vote has just been excluded in South and North (Dakota).”
The North Dakota Secretary of State's Office doesn’t collect data on ethnic backgrounds of those in political office. But anecdotally, Donaghy said she’s seen more native people in North Dakota taking interest in bids for positions on school boards and city councils in an effort to create state and local governments that represent the native population.
“We have people representing us that don’t know what our interests are, and they aren’t representing us,” Donaghy said. “I think it’s about time that we stepped up and be part of the political system that makes decisions that affect our lives.”