In 2012, Representative Susan Allen was the first Native woman elected to the Minnesota Legislature.
In 2015, Allen was joined by Representative Peggy Flanagan, and when the 2017 legislative session convened in January, the number of Native women in the Minnesota House doubled with the election of Representatives Jamie Becker-Finn and Mary Kunesh-Podein, increasing from two to four.
Allen (Rosebud Lakota), Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe), Kunesh-Podein (Standing Rock Lakota), and Becker-Finn (Leech Lake Ojibwe) are First Nation women and deliberately came together as such, forming the first caucus of self-identified Native women in the Minnesota House.
While there have been other Native peoples elected to state office, they often have not clearly stated their heritage.
“Historically, it wasn’t always beneficial to “out” oneself, to talk about that part of your identity,” Becker-Finn explains. “This caucus happened organically — we had a point of connection and a motivation to be visible. We knew that there were issues that we all cared about that we’d want to work on together.”
“There is power in numbers,” Kunesh-Podein says. “As four strong women, we’ve empowered one another and we’re in a position to make a difference.”
“Working together, we’re able to cover more issues, access more resources,” Allen says.
“We’re able to have an increased presence — which has an impact on issues and legislation that affect communities of color.”
Flanagan says, “We’ll review the bill introductions with one another and identify the topics that affect Native people. One of us can go directly to that bill author and ask, ‘Have you talked with anyone in the Native community about this?’ ‘Do you know what this bill actually does?’”
During the 2017 session, all four women also joined with other DFL legislators to form the POCI (People of Color and Indigenous) caucus — composed of members of both the House and Senate. Across these two caucuses, the in-office priorities span policy areas that include the environment, housing, education, treaty rights, finance and health.
“These are all matters that affect all Minnesotans,” observes Becker-Finn. “When we lift up people of color, that lifts everyone up.”
Part of how these four women see their roles in office is in reflecting the communities they serve, with three of these four Native lawmakers representing suburban districts. “Native people still exist and we are everywhere. We’re creating a space at the table for indigenous folks and people of color to tell our own stories,” Flanagan says.
Mary Kunesh-Podein recalls her excitement when Susan Allen was elected to office, then seeing Peggy Flanagan step into her seat. She remembered thinking, “This is the time. If they can do it, I can do it.”
Kunesh-Podein, a teacher, recently had a group of Native students from the University of Minnesota-Morris visit her office in the Capitol. They seemed intimidated being in the Capitol building. “I told them to come back, again, and again. Come back until you’re not intimidated, because someday we’ll need you in office, doing the work that we’re doing. This is the time.”
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