By Davis, Sia
State Legislatures , Vol. 31, No. 4
The number of Native American legislators is on the rise--37 seats in 13 states.
Alaska and Montana have the most. Seven Alaska Natives serve in the House and Senate. Montana's numbers have been growing since 2001. Representative Carol Juneau, a Hidatsa Mandan Indian first elected in 1999, says the Legislature now has eight Indian legislators who represent all seven Montana Indian reservations.
Indian lawmakers are often mistakenly pegged with having a "special constituency" with their own needs and interests. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Washington Representative John McCoy, who belongs to the Tulalip Tribe.
"I wish I could get everyone to understand that Indian Country has the same issues as everyone else," he says. "Society still believes we are mysterious and get special privileges. No matter what I do, it is perceived that I am only doing it for Indian Country. But if I fix something for Native Americans, then I fix it for the general population," he says.
High on the agenda for Indian lawmakers are health care, education, jobs and the environment.
Representative Reggie Joule would like to see the wellness of all Alaska's residents improve.
"Alaskans suffer disproportionately from poor health," he says. "Alaska has a serious drug and alcohol problem that costs the state millions of dollars every year." His state has the highest rate of child abuse, children with fetal alcohol syndrome, suicide and tragic deaths. Programs to help must be comprehensive, Joule says, covering health care, safe homes for pregnant women to get help in a drug free environment, education to help children break the cycle of abuse and ill health and small group homes to make up for the shortage of foster homes. He recommends a task force that reviews needs and possible solutions, including an assessment of what other states are successfully doing. He says people need to be able to get health care when they need it. Many facilities in Alaska have up to a nine-month waiting list. …