Natives Needed In Politics
Rapid City Journal.com
Missoula, Montana – On Monday, January 3rd, Brandon Woodenlegs stepped into an arena where he can potentially affect tens of thousands of Montana residents.
The University of Montana student is the first intern assigned to work with the Montana Legislature’s Native Caucus, a group of eight elected officials from across the state. Woodenlegs, a Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, said he’s honored by the selection which will allow him to assist legislators and witness the role state government plays in shaping the world of Native people.
His newly created position marks a beginning point for Native participation in state government. Montana is at the forefront. Its eight Native lawmakers arguably give Natives
there the highest per capita representation in state governments.
But other states could do better. The National Conference of State Legislatures counts only three Natives in the Arizona Legislature – and that state has a Native population of 255,000. Montana has a Native population of 56,000. Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming and Washington have between zero and four Native legislators.
The lack of Native representation in state politics is owed, in part, to the youthful misconception that it’s not ”our world.” It’s a misplaced belief. Policymakers create the cause-and-effect in our lives, including the quality of schools, transportation, and health care systems. Their decisions extend into and beyond reservation boundaries. Politicians wield power, for better or worse.
Fortunately hundreds of opportunities exist for high school and college students to experience democracy in action. They can serve as interns and pages at the state and national levels. In Montana, for instance, 250 high school students will spend one week of the legislative session working for state leaders.
In many states, high school students can also participate in Boys State or Girls state in programs where they get familiar with the democratic process. They can continue to gain experience while in college. Typically, a student intern or page must have at least one government course, be a junior at a four-year university or sophomore at a two-year college. Students get the chance to analyze bills, prepare bill summaries and do research. The truly motivated student can also seek work in Washington.
Ben Kappelman of Missoula spent nearly six months in 2004 as a U.S. Senate page. Working in the Senate chambers gave him the chance to watch senators deliver moving speeches and present arguments on legislation. He retuned excited about government and politics, his mother said.
“As a mom, I hoped it wouldn’t turn Ben into a cynic,” said Brenda Desmond. Kappelman was among some 30 students selected nationally to serve as Senate pages.
Native college students can also participate in congressional internships through the Morris K. Udall Foundation. The deadline for the 10 week program is January 31. Twelve students will be chosen for the Washington internships. The selected youths are expected to take lessons home to their tribes.
As legislative sessions get started across the country, now is the time for students to become engaged with the system. We live in a complacent society, typically allowing others to make decisions for us. In Native communities, politically minded youths ought to be thinking about more than a seat on the tribal council.
Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado – the nation’s only Native senator has left office. And recent state elections didn’t produce a single Native leader for the U.S. Senate. Let the training begin.
Jodi Rave reports on American Indian issues for Lee Enterprises and the Missoula, Mont. Missoulian. She can be reached at (800) 366-7186 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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