The rise of Indigenous candidates raises awareness of key issues

Indigenous values helped shape American democracy, and now they’re helping increase Native representation.

SOURCEYes! Magazine
Crystal Cavalier, who ran for election to the U.S. House to represent North Carolina's 4th Congressional District. PHOTO COURTESY OF CRYSTAL CAVALIER

In this year’s primaries, there are more than 100 Indigenous candidates running for state or federal office in the United States. These leaders are no strangers to governance and civic duty—American Indigenous values, like the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, served as the foundational model for American democracy.

Still, these civic leaders face significant hurdles, particularly when they campaign in the many districts where Indigenous people aren’t the majority. They must overcome the limited mainstream awareness of Indigeneity and Indigenous issues, remnants of colonialism and lateral violence, and competing interests.

Crystal Cavalier, a community activist and enrolled citizen of the North Carolina–recognized Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, ran in the stacked Democratic primary for U.S. House in North Carolina’s Congressional District 4 in May. The majority of the 875,000 voters in that district identify as being of European origin (54.4%) and female (51.5%). Cavalier didn’t advance to the general election, but she plans to run again in 2024.

For Cavalier, running for office is just one part of a longer journey in activism. She has a background as a certified cyber and information security analyst, with degrees in political science and public administration. Cavalier and her husband co-founded the nonprofit 7 Directions of Service for ecological and community activism. They have so far successfully opposed the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Southgate Extension, which would cut through their community.

“I’ve been fighting for the community that I live in,” Cavalier says.

Lawmakers and organizations have called the proposed pipeline an “environmental catastrophe with no certainty of completion.” County commissioners in Cavalier’s community voted unanimously to prevent MVP Southgate access, as it posed dangers to the local Haw River, drinking water, public safety, and property values. Cavalier hosts regular organizer calls and letter-writing campaigns and speaks out against construction of the pipeline with her allies in civic leadership, such as Steven Pulliam, Riverkeeper of the nearby Dan River. 

“Being a Water Protector means you understand that water is your relative,” she says. “You’re speaking up for something that doesn’t have a voice.” 

D.C. Circuit court recently upheld FERC approval of the project; however, it still cannot proceed until the Mainline System Project receives all permits.

“We’re calling on Biden to stop the MVP. He can issue an executive order or just stop the entire thing,” Cavalier says. But, as is, “Biden is not making good on his campaign promises to Indigenous communities.” 

Missing and murdered Indigenous people

Another campaign issue involved resolution of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People issues, such as unsolved crimes and a legal framework to prosecute non-Indigenous assailants and criminals who perpetrate crimes on Indigenous territories or communities. 

Cavalier advocates for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People concurrently with pipeline opposition. “These oil and extractive industries come into areas where tribes settled and influence violence, human and drug trafficking. So, it’s important to highlight climate justice with racial equity.” 

Peter Landeros, the executive director of American Indian Movement in the DMV region, agrees: “Even though the Biden administration stated that they would allocate funds, we really haven’t seen much progress on that end,” Landeros says. “We’re still having the same issues on reservations and urban areas with Native populations. And nobody is willing to discuss changing laws to prosecute non-Native perpetrators.”

Indigenous organizers like Cavalier and Landeros have worked for decades to bring visibility to issues like Missing and Murdered Indigenous People cases, voting rights, and pipelines’ impacts on waterways—issues that have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous and other marginalized communities but often receive little intervention or attention. 

Elizabeth Mercedes Krause is an Oglala–Lakota citizen who recently won the primary election in Nevada’s U.S. House District 2. MMIP is a top concern in her district, which is split almost evenly between male and female, but is only 2.3% Native American. Nevada’s Indigenous population ranked as the ninth highest in the United States in 2019, and as 5.1% of Nevada’s population in the 2020 Census. 

“The top four questions asked of me by community were regarding missing and murdered Indigenous U.S. people,” Krause says. And for good reason. “Indigenous women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than the national average,” she says. “Four out of five will experience violence. Homicide is the leading cause of death between ages 10 and 24.” 

But deep bias against Native Americans still blinds law enforcement to victim identities and creates glaring gaps in data. The identity and data erasure is countrywide in civil and criminal procedures. And that’s if cases are even investigated in the first place.

In May, Krause attended an MMIP event in her area where a family told their story of losing one daughter, then a second, and then the grandchildren. Aunts and extended relatives now care for the remaining children, with no word yet on suspects, locations of their family members, or outcomes. 

“My God,” she says. “We have to have regulated mandates and funding for accurate reporting, so alerts are going out to as many systems as fast as possible when there is a missing person.”

Krause stated that while there are positive initiatives happening, there is still much to be done on the legislative and law enforcement side, both to properly collate data and to issue timely alerts.

A lack of trust in local and federal law enforcement is a huge factor, according to Paula Jillian, senior policy specialist at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. After hundreds of years of broken treaties, genocidal behavior, and assimilation tactics, Indigenous communities have a deep distrust of law enforcement, and much remains to be seen in the way officials handle cases and complaints.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs itself is under fire for refusal to enforce laws for its own officers. On April 15, 2022, for example, the Montana Supreme Court heard a case where the state U.S. Attorney’s Office argued the BIA is not liable for the conduct of its officer who raped a Northern Cheyenne woman in her home, on her reservation, and threatened to take away her children—maliciously harkening to the traumatic and not-too-distant-past policy of “Indian child removal.”

Still, Jillian’s organization continues to fight for solutions. It is calling for federal assistance to investigate MMIP cases as well as federal accountability for the discrimination, abuse, and violence of law enforcement and federal officials against Native peoples.

“We do not yet have results that are ʻmeasurable’ or ʻmeaningful,’” Jillian says. 

Cavalier emphasizes the increased levels of violence and human trafficking associated with extractive industries, like oil, in tribal areas. The two are closely linked. 

Cavalier cites a 2017 report on MMIP by the Urban Indian Health Institute, which didn’t include data for the Southeast U.S. at all. Some of the reasons for that are historical. While the Indian Removal Act and the Civil War caused mass migration of Free People of Color westward between 1830 and 1865, there are still approximately 764,000 people who identify as Native in the Southeast region. 

“It’s important to highlight climate justice with racial equity, because [authorities] often view Indigenous people as invisible,” Cavalier says. “The government wants people to believe that anybody east of the Mississippi is not Native, and that’s not true.” 

Fresh energy

Patrick Pihana Branco is a former diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service and a Native Hawaiian state-level representative in Hawaiʻi’s District 50. He is running in the general election for U.S. Congressional District 2 on Aug. 13. The area is not just ethnically diverse, but geographically so, with seven different islands—all distinct communities with different issues to address. Still, Native Hawaiian communities make up a minority of the population. 

Sustainable energy is a high priority in Hawaiʻi, as four-fifths of the state’s energy is produced through petroleum consumption, and it has some of the highest fuel costs in the country

“I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly Indigenous issue, but something all of Hawaiʻi has agreed is important,” Branco says. He points out that Hawaiʻi was the first state to adopt the Paris Climate Accords and set a goal of 100% clean energy by 2045, and it’s also one of the only states that can produce all forms of renewable energy: wind, wave, solar, and geothermal. “It’s very important we harness all of these technologies for our future,” Branco says. 

He sees Native leadership as an important aspect of achieving improved rights and conditions for Native Hawaiians, both in terms of renewable energy and beyond. That’s why Branco intends to host a mentorship program for future Native candidates based on a program he participated in with Congressman Charles Rangel in Washington, D.C., as a 2010 Rangel Fellow. The program provided mentoring as a foreign service diplomat, including travel training to support them in diverse representation.

“He created a program that included 20 diverse people from around the country,” Branco says. “I was the first from Hawaiʻi to be selected. Since then, I’ve kept that in my current role at the state legislature to make sure that my office is always a safe place for young people when they want to come and learn. And I’m very proud that several of those who worked for me in my state office have now gone on to law school or into fellowships, and some are even considering running for office.” 

Native leadership

But despite these efforts, in 2022, Native Americans don’t have equal representation or voting rights. 

In Elizabeth Mercedes Krause’s region of Nevada, she says, “Only 11 out of our 28 tribal communities have polling places that are guaranteed under law.” Members of the Yemba community actually went out to remote areas on horseback to collect ballots, she says.

Krause, a graduate of Advanced Native Political Leadership, says, based on the distribution of tribal communities, they should have 64 representatives statewide in Nevada. But the real number is less than five. 

“I am taking an inventory of all of the things I’m experiencing that I need more support in,” Krause says. “We need structures built to support our running.”

Between efforts like Krause’s and Branco’s, Indigenous candidates are not only increasing representation of Native communities and raising awareness in mainstream elections, but also trailblazing solid paths for Indigenous voices to be heard and respected in the collective consciousness of the United States.

Branco feels both amazement and hope as he looks forward. “My story is unique, and I have to give something back to Hawaiʻi,” he says. “I’m honored, and I really do believe my story is only possible because I had those who cared for me and really invested in me. And it’s now my turn to care and invest for our community.”


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