Courtesy Deb Haaland and Peggy Flanagan
Peggy Flanagan had wanted to be a special education teacher. She’d volunteered in special education classrooms for almost a decade. She’d earned her diploma in the field. But toward the end of her time in school, she ended up on a drive past Sen. Paul Wellstone’s reelection headquarters. Wellstone, a progressive lion, had served two terms in the Senate. He wanted a third. (He died in a plane crash less than two weeks before the race.) Flanagan liked him, in particular for his simple conviction that politics could improve people’s lives. On a whim, Flanagan decided to stop in. “I stuffed envelopes for two hours with complete strangers,” she says. “And that was it. I had been bitten by the bug.”
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Still, Flanagan could not have predicted she’d end up where she is now—on the ballot in Minnesota, a candidate for lieutenant governor who, if elected, will be the first person of color to hold a constitutional office in the state and the highest-ranked Native American state office holder across all 50 states.
Behind that pile of mailers, Flanagan admits she did not see this future: the one in which she leads a national push for better representation of Native American women in public office nationwide.
The New York Times reported last month that almost 40 Native American women jumped into political races this election season, with four women running for Congress, three in contention for governors’ mansions, and 31 in pursuit of state legislature seats. The trend is historic and includes women from both ends of the political spectrum.
“American Indians have been invisible…in so many sectors in society,” Denise Juneau, the superintendent of Montana schools and one of the first native women in the United States to win a statewide executive position, said in an interview with the Times. But their election is not just a matter of representation, Flanagan tells me. It’s an issue of power.
Even at 22, Flanagan understood that native people didn’t have the voice they needed in the offices where decisions were made. “I saw, really in that one afternoon, that electoral politics cold build power for us, and I knew I wanted to be involved in that.”