North Dakota’s 27th District has traditionally been a Republican stronghold. But on December 3, 2018, Democrat Ruth Buffalo was sworn in as a state representative for that district. She’s the first Native American woman Democrat in the North Dakota statehouse, and for the ceremony, Buffalo dressed with pride: a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, she wore a traditional dress for the ceremony and carried an eagle-feather fan. Her win is a particular feat of badassery. Victory over Republican incumbent Randy Boehning was considered an upset in a district that includes the state’s most populous city, Fargo. But delicious as that victory may be, Buffalo has been clear on something from the beginning: her campaign was powered by the message that people—all people—are united by common needs. And Buffalo wants to represent those people and meet those needs.
“Ruth ran not as necessarily a Native American woman, but as a woman in Fargo who wanted to talk about issues that were affecting her community,” Scott McNeil, the executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party, told the New York Times. During her campaign, Buffalo focused on local issues affecting everyone, from property taxes to health care to the education system. And she believed in talking to people face-to-face. In fact, she knocked on more than 6,500 doors in order to do so. When asked how she prevailed in a district and state known for being conservative, Buffalo was matter of fact. “I would say meeting people where they’re at,” she told the Times. “Literally on their doorsteps. Most people were surprised to see a candidate at their doorstep.”
If going door-to-door showed grit, so did the efforts of the larger Native American population of North Dakota at the midterms. Voting as a Native American—not to put too fine a point on it—can be a bitch. Buffalo herself lives in Fargo, but she has family members who live on reservations and understands the obstacles Native American voters face. “We have friends that had the precincts that they normally would vote at shut down for budgetary reasons, which is hard to comprehend, because they’re right in the middle of oil country,” she told the Times. “There used to be two precincts in Mandaree, where I’m originally from, and the more rural precinct—the precinct that is farther east of Mandaree—for some reason was closed. They had to drive all the way around the river to Killdeer, at least 45 minutes.”
But vote they did. And going forward, Buffalo’s win is a huge boost for Native Americans throughout the state. Boehning, the opponent she unseated, was the prime author of a voter ID law many feared would suppress the Native American vote.
Buffalo justifiably takes pride in her culture. That eagle-feather fan she carried at her swearing-in? It was gifted to her hours before the ceremony by her clan brother. “Eagle feathers in our culture are very significant,” she told the Huffington Post. Bottom line, though, Buffalo’s ancestral pride lives alongside a commitment to representing one large group: the human race. “I grew up on a reservation, but I’m living in an urban district where I’ll be serving everyone, all people,” Buffalo said. “We’re all related, we’re all on the same team, we’re all human beings.”
Thumbnail credit: from Ruth Buffalo Door Knocking for You by Ruth for North Dakota via YouTube.
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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