Native Americans urge get-out-the-vote drive in 2024
A major impetus behind electing more Native Americans to office in Washington State is that the ones now in office fight for the preservation of places like Mount Rainier National Park (pictured). | Shutterstock

BLYN, WA.—The main assembly hall of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe was crowded with Native Americans and their allies, Tuesday, applauding as Native American candidates appealed for a big “get-out-the-vote” drive to elect more tribal members to the legislature and state agencies in Olympia.

The event was organized by Julie Johnson and Theresa Sheldon, co-chairs of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. It was a festive occasion in the handsome room with floor to ceiling windows looking out on Sequim Bay.

A drummer hammered her drum and sang a S’Klallam song. Elaine Grinnell, famed S’Klallam story teller, said a prayer for the gathering. A high point of the day was greeting leaders of the Washington State Democratic Party, including Shasti Conrad, state Democratic Party Chairwoman. Retiring Congressman, Derek Kilmer (D-WA), was honored.

In welcoming remarks, Sheldon told the crowd the nation faces “the most important election of our lives” to ensure a Democratic victory for all the Federal offices but also down ballot to state and local offices.

She spoke of the sharp “differences between Republicans and Democrats” adding, “It really puts the pressure on us to educate voters, our own people, to elect Native candidates to office.”

Debora Juarez, former President of the Seattle City Council, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana said, “We have eight Native Americans running for office in Washington State. We don’t only represent Native communities” Tribal elected officials, she said, represent everyone in their districts.

Port Angeles City Councilperson, Latrisha Suggs, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe played a leading role in stopping a logging operation on the banks of the Elwha River. She told the gathering, “Protecting our watershed, protecting our natural resources, is part of my job….What we do, we do together.”

All three Native American members of the Washington State Legislature were present—Rep. Chris Stearns of Auburn and Sen. Claudia Kauffman—both of  LD-47 in King County—and Rep. Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit, of the 40th LD. Lekanoff was for years the sole Native American in the Washington State legislature. As she spoke, she stepped toward people in the crowd. “For years,” she exclaimed, “there was nobody in the Governor’s office who looked like you!…..And you!….And you!. That is how important it is to have you in the State Legislature.”

She cited the Opioid Settlement with Purdue, the pharma that falsely claimed oxycodone was non-addictive. “We were at the top of the list,” Lekanoff said, millions in damages distributed to tribes hard-hit by opioid addiction. “Everything we do is to help the people,” Lekanoff concluded.

Rep. Chris Stearns said the presence of three tribal members in the legislature has had “a huge impact” adding, “We need more people running for office and getting elected.” He cited a recent discussion in which one participant said, “Yeah, we’re going to get our land back….” Said Stearns, “It is a topic that would not have been discussed ten years ago.”

Also present were Bob Iyall, a Nisqually, and Maggie Sanders, a Makah, both members of the Olympia Port Commission. Iyall drew applause when he told of the Port Commission approval of funs to remove pollutants from the bottom and shore of South Puget Sound. “We are now moving forward to clean up the South Puget Sound. It will help in the recovery efforts of the salmon runs….We are proud to be a part of that.”

Nate Tyler said he works tirelessly to help meet the needs of the people of Neah Bay and has strong support from five other tribes in his sprawling LD-24, the largest legislative district in the state. Yet it is not only the tribes he is thinking of. “It is about the 124,000 residents of LD-24….” The legislature has three Native Americans, he added. “I want to be the fourth.” The crowd burst into applause.

Patrick Depoe, a Makah Tribal member running statewide for Public Lands Commissioner, said “I am running for this position” and if elected “I will be the first state-wide elected official” in Washington State History. “Its just mind blowing to me, to have this opportunity to run for this position. It is a question of equity.”

Tribal leaders praised Rep. Kilmer for securing federal funding for health care, including millions to help keep the Olympic Medical Center open and for winning $2.64 billion for broadband services on the reservations—a fraction of the estimated $15 billion needed to provide broadband connectivity to all 574 tribes in the nation.

Kilmer’s retirement leaves the seat open and Republicans seek to flip it. The two main Democratic contenders for the seat—State Senator Emily Randall and former Public Lands Commissioner, Hilary Franz, were present at the gathering.

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Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.