When Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota takes her seat in the U.S. Senate come January, she will owe her margin of victory to American Indians. Heitkamp defeated Republican Rick Berg in a tight race, with her tallying 160,752 votes and Berg 157,758, a slim margin of 2,994. The four North Dakota counties with the highest percentage of Indians gave the former state attorney general a margin of 4,352 votes. On a per capita basis, North Dakota ranks seventh among the states in terms of citizens who are Indian, with five federally recognized reservations. The Indian population is about 36,200, 5.4 percent of the state's total, of which three-fourths lives on reservations.</p>
Here's a breakdown of the vote in the Heitkamp-Berg Senate contest for the four counties (with the names of reservations in those counties included in parentheses). Reservation boundaries in two cases extend over parts of more than one county: • Sioux County (Standing Rock Sioux Reservation) with 85 percent Indian population: 962 votes for Heitkamp; 184 for Berg • Rollette County (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) with 73 percent Indian population: 3,660 votes for Heitkamp; 900 for Berg • Benson County (Spirit Lake Tribe) with 48 percent Indian population 1,451 votes for Heitkamp; 707 for Berg • Mountrail County (Fort Berthold Indian Reservation) with 30 percent Indian population 1,742 votes for Heitkamp; 1,672 for Berg.</p>
Some of the credit for the Indian turnout for Heitkamp goes to Prairie Rose Seminole—an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) who serves as native vote director for the Democratic Party-NonPartisan League of North Dakota—and to Heitkamp's campaign staffer Diane Johnson, who is also enrolled in the Three Affiliated Tribes.</p>
A native of Fargo, Prairie Rose is no rookie to politics. Her parents, she says, were good models as activists on American Indian issues. She began knocking on doors in 1998, served on the Fargo's Human Relations Commission, including a stint as its chairwoman, and was employed as a lead organizer for Change that Works ND for two years. That non-profit grassroots campaign focused on passing health care and financial reforms as well as the union-friendly Employee Free Choice Act. </p>
She has worked nationwide with the White House Project, the Native American Leadership Program and Wellstone Action to train and empower activists, campaign workers and individuals seeking elected office. She is a member of New Generation North Dakota, young progressives determined to bring new ideas and new candidates into the state's political mix. (She is also registered at Daily Kos and attended Netroots Nation 2011 in Minneapolis.) In 2010, Prairie Rose herself sought elective office, running for a four-year term as one of the two representatives serving District 45 in the North Dakota House of Representatives. One of those representatives was Rick Berg. But he gave up that seat when he ran for Congress that year. He won. She lost. But defeat just made her stronger. One of Prairie Rose's key influences, she says, is Barry Nelson. Himself a community activist, he has "known me my whole life and as a mentor, he's helped me connect the dots of my journey. He's empowered me, by affirming the values of honesty, hard work, determination and a positive attitude." Nelson must have been very happy with news about Heidi Heitkamp Wednesday morning. In 2006, he also had run for one of the District 45 seats then occupied by Rick Berg, missing the mark by 103 votes.
Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer who previously was a House staffer, said he campaigned with Heitkamp 12 years ago when she ran unsuccessfully for governor of the state, and he came to the conclusion then that she’s an “awesome lady.” Stearns believes Native efforts and votes for Heitkamp tipped the scales in her favor. Tex Hall, chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes, hosted a get-out-the-vote rally on her behalf on his [Fort Berthold] reservation the Saturday before the election, and also campaigned for her.
While many candidates give lip service to issues important to Indians during election campaigns, only to forget them once elected, Heitkamp gets credit among the North Dakota tribes for really paying attention:
“Fulfilling treaty obligations we made years ago is one of the greatest contributions we can make to Indian well-being,” she claims. “So much of what is done here involves treaty rights, an attorney general has to understand tribal and state law enforcement issues,” she says, “but many North Dakotans do not understand them. Unfortunately, neither do most state representatives. Working with our tribes has put me in a great position to represent them in the Senate.”
In meetings and campaign appearances, she told tribal leaders that she would seek a seat on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, some of whose members in the past, like former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, have been Indian haters nearly the equal of their 19th Century predecessors. Heitkamp seems to do a good deal more listening to Indians than talking at them, a step in right direction. One area of concern for Indians on lands near North Dakota's lucrative Bakken formation of shale oil deposits is what extraction of that fossil fuel is doing to their lives. Heitkamp recognizes there are problems, not least of which is an influx of non-Indian oil-field workers into the Fort Berthold area that may have shifted the usually dominant Democratic vote there into greater balance between the two parties. On the other hand, Heitkamp strongly favors continued drilling. That's something about which not all members of the Three Affiliated Tribes are of one mind. Chairman Tex Hall, who feted Heitkamp last Saturday, was exceedingly happy when the Environmental Protection Agency approved a wastewater permit for a refinery on reservation land Aug. 1 this year. The refinery will provide 65 permanent jobs:
Getting EPA approval to construct the refinery was an uphill battle. “It took eight years, and I traveled to Denver [to meet with EPA officials] more times than I care to remember,” Hall told the Grand Forks Herald. “Our engineers are all excited about moving forward now. We’re going gangbusters in the Bakken, with our own drilling and production, and now we’re going to add refining.” [...] “This way we’re not only drilling and producing our own local crude, but we would be refining it, too, turning it into diesel fuel, gasoline and propane through a tribal corporation,” Hall said. “That’s always been my objective, to have the tribe involved in all aspects of the industry.” [...] Some tribal members have voiced opposition to the tribe’s head-straight dive into oil production due to fear of disruption of traditional life and harm to the environment, the people and wildlife. “You don’t need to take a toxic tour of the reservation,” said Kandi Mossett, tribal climate change coordinator for the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), a non-profit environmental and economic justice organization. “You can see it when you just drive onto Fort Berthold. They’ll see the trucks and the gas flares. You can see the glare off the clouds at night for miles.”
Heitkamp is not only an avid fan of continued development of the Bakken shale oil but also of the mining of North Dakota coal. She has, since 2003, sat on the board of Dakota Gasification, which transforms coal into synthetic natural gas. And she also favors a controversial project that has divided both Democrats and Indians:
“As Senator, I will fight alongside anyone who agrees that it’s time to move the Keystone pipeline forward—even if it means upsetting members of my own party,” her website states.
The United Tribes of North Dakota, an association of all five federally recognized tribes in the state, passed a resolution last year in opposition to the pipeline, noted as well:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the United States is urged to reduce its reliance on the world’s dirtiest and most environmentally destructive form of oil—the “tar sands”—that threatens Indian country in both Canada and the United States and the way of life of thousands of citizens of First Nations in Canada and American Indians in the U.S., and requests the U.S. government to take aggressive measures to work towards sustainable energy solutions that include clean alternative energy and improving energy efficiency.