Meet the Native American candidate the oil industry doesn’t want in Congress

Chase Iron Eyes never had political aspirations before this year. Sure, he was an activist and a committed community leader in his tribe in North Dakota, but running for office didn’t cross his mind.

Then one day early in 2016, he heard Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders spoke passionately about social revolution and economic justice, and Iron Eyes then knew he wanted to be part of that change.

“Bernie said some of the things that needed to be said for a long, long time… things that native people have been saying for 500 years,” said Iron Eyes, a 38-year-old lawyer and member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The tribe has garnered national attention for leading massive protests against the controversial $3.8 billion Dakota Access oil pipeline, set to transport oil from North Dakota into Illinois while crossing multiple waterways, including the tribe’s sole water supply.

Hoping to become a Sanders delegate, Iron Eyes went to his first caucus meetings in March; he came out of those gatherings a congressional candidate. Democrats (technically the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party) didn’t have anyone to run against Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican seeking a third term in Congress. So Iron Eyes stepped up.

“Oil has completely bought all our politicians,” he told ThinkProgress. “So I just felt that now is the time for me to become involved, because we are running out of time as a country — especially with what is going on right now with all the division, the fear, and the hate that was tapped into by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.”

North Dakota may get its name from the Native American tribes that inhabited the region, yet no Native American in the state has ever run for Congress until now.

Iron Eyes’ campaign is thus unprecedented for a sparsely populated state home to some 30,000 indigenous people. And he isn’t alone: Iron Eyes is one of three Native Americans trying to change the existing dynamic, moving beyond the realm of tribal politics for the first time to take a shot at statewide office.

Campaigning along with Iron Eyes is Ruth Buffalo, who is running to be the state’s insurance commissioner; and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, who is running to win the one open seat on the three-member Public Service Commission.

Like Iron Eyes, Hunte-Beaubrun is also a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and favors oil development that takes the environment into consideration — responsible development, they call it. The PSC plays the critical role of pipeline regulator in what is now the second-largest oil producing state in the nation, and Hunte-Beaubrun said it’s time Native Americans have a say in that process.

Though the North Dakota protests only received national attention after recent violent escalations, Standing Rock tribe members have questioned the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline ever since it was first proposed two years ago.

They have long insisted that the project threatens both sacred sites and the tribe’s water supply, as the pipeline is set to run through the Missouri River and transport some 500,000 barrels of fracked crude oil daily. The tribe also maintains it wasn’t adequately consulted about the proposed route.

In fact, Hunte-Beaubrun is running, she said, “so that something like this doesn’t happen ever again, and we are part of the process.”

Native American elected officials are not unprecedented across the country.

Over the years, many have reached state legislatures and some have even held federal office. Still, indigenous candidates remain a rarity, particularly in Congress. Indigenous candidates tend to struggle to lure non-indigenous voters and moreover, Native Americans as a whole are often skeptical of U.S. politics.

This skepticism stems in part from the fact that indigenous people across the country have long felt disenfranchised, ignored, and even attacked by state and federal governments. And it’s not hard to see why: Nearly 30 percent of Native Americans now live in poverty and experience double digit unemployment rates. Police violence also disproportionately impacts Native Americans, the group most likely to be killed by law enforcement, according to a study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

They are are also acutely aware that treaties with the federal government have been routinely violated.

The historian Howard Zinn famously wrote that by the 1970s, the government had signed more than 400 treaties with Native Americans and violated every single one. And when it comes to projects, tribes often say they are unable to influence decisions affecting them or the land they hold sacred. As a result, many Native Americans with a passion for public service stay active only in tribal politics affecting their sovereign land.

“If we don’t ever do anything, who will, and when?” Hunte-Beaubrun said, adding that she wants Native American youth to learn they can have political aspirations outside of the tribe. “There’s five tribes in North Dakota and we are not represented at all at the state level.”

As these three candidates try to improve Native American representation, they are already making history together in North Dakota.

No other U.S. state has ever had three Native Americans running as major party nominees for statewide offices. This comes at a time when indigenous people, like other minorities, are growing faster than non-Hispanic whites, said Mark Trahant, an independent journalist following Native American politics and a faculty member at the University of North Dakota.

“I think now what is amazing is the quality of the candidates,” said Trahant, noting that all three candidates are highly educated, prepared for the positions they want to fill, and in it to win. “Ruth Buffalo here in North Dakota may be the hardest working candidate I’ve ever seen. Everyday she is knocking on doors, making phone calls… she’s just really, really working hard.”

While the North Dakota candidates all said their inspiration to run stems in part from the inequality and injustices indigenous people have suffered for years, they noted a common desire to bring values of diversity and inclusiveness to public office, not favoritism. “[I’m] just really trying to fight for the underdog, people whose voices are never heard, or always ignored,” said Buffalo.

But conveying a message of social justice for all on the campaign trail is daunting.

The candidates said people tend to question their political motivation because they are Native Americans. “There are certain things that I’m going to [have] to address in my candidacy that nobody else would have to,” said Iron Eyes.

For example, during debates he’s been asked whether he can represent all North Dakotans given his heritage. “That’s like asking [Rep.] Kevin Cramer: as a Norwegian, could you really represent black people in North Dakota?” Iron Eyes said. To counter voter fears, Iron Eyes tries to stress the fact that he was born and raised in North Dakota; he speaks the same language, went to the same schools, and has a vested interest in the same economy.

But a cold reception from some voters is just one of many challenges tribal candidates are facing in the Roughrider State. Lack of funding and inexperience is a problem, too.

“This was a wake-up call that I wasn’t prepared for,” Iron Eyes said of his candidacy. Crafting a campaign late in the game has been a bumpy road, and Iron Eyes made costly mistakes — surrounding himself with expensive political consultants who pulled him away from the grassroots campaign he wanted to run.

“I ended up wasting almost $100,000 in the beginning of my campaign, and that was really my wake-up call to say that I’ve learned how politicians work,” he said.

“They’ll do a poll to find out what voters think is important, and then they’ll craft their platform,” Iron Eyes continued.

“I just come from a different tradition of leadership.”

He is indeed pitching himself as a different kind of rising leader — one who is willing to show voters who he is despite what polls say, and explain his past missteps over the course of his campaign.

Iron Eyes was born and raised on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation, and grew up living in extreme poverty. In his 20s, he battled alcohol addiction and, in 2002, was convicted of stealing a car and other crimes before he turned his life around.

“Breaking the cycle of poverty, the cycle of domestic violence, cycle of substance abuse, just struggle — after coming through that you want to help others that are facing challenges too,” he said. Iron Eyes acknowledges that discussing the hardships he’s faced may be helping him connect with the thousands of people backing his campaign.

In the last three weeks, his campaign accrued some $182,000, with donations averaging less than $4 each, Iron Eyes said.

Still, he has received less money than any other Democratic congressional candidate in North Dakota in the last two elections.

Meanwhile, Iron Eyes is facing a seasoned politician with deep roots in state politics and strong financial and political support. Experts say that polls are notoriously unreliable in North Dakota, so it’s unclear how Iron Eyes — and the other Native American candidates for that matter — is really doing. But they were clear that Iron Eyes is a massively outspent Democrat facing an uphill battle in a deep red state.

According to experts, Cramer is poised to be reelected to Congress next week, despite his continued support for Trump, who has faced a litany of scandals in recent months.

“This is a state that is strongly Republican and the Republicans dominate all: the state House, state Senate, statewide elected offices,” said Nicholas Bauroth, associate professor of Political Science at North Dakota State University. “The only statewide elected official that is a Democrat is Heidi Heitkamp, who is a senator, and she is going to have a very tough time winning reelection if she runs in 2018.”

Once North Dakota’s youngest GOP state chairman at age 30, Cramer is the favorite to win not just because of the party he represents, but because he also has the backing of the oil and gas industry — key driver of the state’s economy. In fact, the oil and gas industry, along with energy utilities, are his two largest campaign contributors.

Cramer has the support of some labor groups, as well. The National Electrical Contractors Association is his third largest backer, according to Open Secrets.org. As of October 19, Cramer, a climate skeptic, had raised more than $1.3 million, almost 10 times the amount Iron Eyes raised in the same period. He did not respond to a ThinkProgress request for comment.

Cramer easily beat the last Democrat who tried to take his seat in 2014. And that time the challenger was a businessman and the son of a former North Dakota governor with robust financing.

This time, the Democratic candidate is a liberal Native American with few resources, a man who believes in climate change, advocates for responsible development and more stringent extraction regulations, and is part of the tribe that is staunchly fighting the largest piece of infrastructure that may soon come out North Dakota. All while trying to entice a state that is mostly blue collar, nearly 90 percent white, and conservative.

Still, Iron Eyes believes he and the two other Native American candidates have a chance to win, based on the support Sanders received in North Dakota when he was facing Hillary Clinton, now the Democratic presidential candidate. “Bernie Sanders, he won 42 out of 47 districts in the state, so there is a lot of Bernie people here in the state,” he said. “Our caucuses were record-breaking numbers because new people are coming in to vote.”

He is not the only one who thinks that way.

“In this cycle, anything can happen,” Trahant said.

“There is so much chaos surrounding the presidential race that there may be some surprises in store.”

And if they don’t win this time, Iron Eyes, Buffalo, and Hunte-Beaubrun all said they will try again, and again. In the long run, that may ultimately inspire the next generation of Native American leaders, they said. “I’m in it for the long haul,” said Buffalo. “So if I don’t get in, maybe my sons, [or] my daughters will be the next governor of North Dakota, or the next Chase Iron Eyes.”