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Young attorney pushes to be American Indian voice at Capitol

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Irene Folstrom, a DFLer and Leech Lake Ojibwe, is hoping to become the first Indian woman elected to the Minnesota Legislature. (Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Democratic Network)
A young attorney from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is launching what could be an historic campaign for the Minnesota Senate. If Irene Folstrom wins, she would be the first Indian woman to be elected to the state Legislature.

Walker, Minn. — (AP) - As coordinator of the national Native Vote 2004 campaign, Irene Folstrom thought she would spend Election Day driving voters to the polls on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.

Instead, the young lawyer got an urgent call: A partisan was trying to intimidate voters in Ponemah, about 65 miles away on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. By the time Folstrom had raced to the scene, police had removed the man, but the incident stuck with her.

"It made me realize how motivated some people are to disenfranchise American Indians at the polls," Folstrom said. "That's when I really started thinking I wanted to run for office."

Now Folstrom, a Democrat and a Leech Lake Ojibwe, is doing just that with a bid for the state Senate that would make her the first American Indian woman elected to the Minnesota Legislature.

There's one American Indian in Congress, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Chickasaw from Oklahoma, and none among the nation's governors.

Nationwide, 48 American Indians are serving in 12 state legislatures, up from 36 a couple of years ago. Oklahoma has the most, 10, followed by eight in Montana, seven in Alaska and five in New Mexico, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Minnesota, though home to 11 American Indian bands, doesn't make the NCSL list. In the century and a half since territorial government was organized, voters here have elected just six American Indian men to the Legislature -- none in the last decade.

American Indians, and others, say that's a problem when nearly every year brings debate on gambling rights, tribal sovereignty, and other issues that directly concern tribes.

"It's not our mission to take over the state Legislature, but it's our mission to have a strong voice," said Leech Lake tribal chairman George Goggleye, who backs Folstrom. "It's a good feeling to see one of our tribal members in a position where they can provide a voice to us."

Goggleye blames the dearth of American Indian lawmakers on racism, lack of political experience and money, and the tribes' relatively small numbers. For most Indians, political experience has meant tribal government. But that's changing as more American Indians consider running for office off the reservation and national groups raise money for them.

"Indians were here first. It's about time," said former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was the only American Indian in the Senate from 1992 to 2004. "We're way behind the African Americans and Hispanic Americans in getting politically involved, but we're beginning to take a page out of their notebook." When Nighthorse Campbell first ran for office, he says militant American Indian friends questioned why he would get involved with a government they viewed as the enemy.

Indians were here first. It's about time.
- Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell

But he said Congress passed more bills helping Indian people during his 12 years in office than ever before, addressing needs including jobs, health care, education, natural resources and more.

Folstrom has her work cut out for her. Several other Democrats, including Bemidji attorney Mary Olson and City Councilman Ron Johnson, want to challenge first-term Sen. Carrie Ruud, a Republican from Breezy Point.

And while Folstrom can count on strong tribal support, she must appeal to white voters in Bemidji and conservative-minded Twin Cities retirees living in the area's luxury lake homes. The district itself is seen as ideologically mixed.

If Folstrom emerges from the primary, her heritage could be no big deal in a general election, said Craig Grau, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Big races for governor and U.S. Senate are expected to boost turnout.

"My guess is it'll be a Democrat-Republican thing, not a Caucasian-American Indian race," Grau said. "It's party when it comes down to it."

Folstrom, 31, doesn't lack for energy.

She and her husband, Brett Masayesva, and their sons ages 3 and 1 are moving into a house in Bemidji they just bought. Masayesva, a doctor, will fly back and forth while he finishes a residency at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Folstrom says she's willing to put in the long hours it will take to win an election.

On a Tuesday evening in December, she spoke at a DFL meeting at a bar in Walker before heading to a high school basketball game between archrivals Cass Lake-Bena, her alma mater, and Red Lake. Folstrom climbed into the stands, chatting with old friends and relatives.

"She understands the problems we have up here," said John Thompson, a Leech Lake tribal member. "I know she doesn't have the solutions, but she's willing to look for them. I'm a supporter -- 100 percent. One thousand percent."

A recent wave of violence on the Leech Lake reservation claimed two of Folstrom's relatives -- an uncle was stabbed to death, and a cousin was killed by a drunken driver.

She says the losses helped her decide to run for Senate, to try to help the area with more resources to fight crime, especially gangs and drugs, and to develop the local economy.

Folstrom says she would represent the entire district better than Ruud has.

Ruud, a real estate broker whom Democrats have targeted as vulnerable, says she's done a good job, working hard to get to all parts of the sprawling district. She's focused on forestry, education, tourism and other issues important to the lake-studded, heavily wooded area.

"I have a very diverse district and I feel that I've represented it well," said Ruud, who broke a 12-year DFL hold on the Senate district in 2002. "There are months when I put on 1,800 miles trying to get to everyone and represent them."

Minnesota's last American Indian state lawmaker was Sen. Harold "Skip" Finn, a Democrat from Cass Lake who resigned in disgrace in 1996 for stealing about $1 million from the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa through a self-insurance scheme.

Bill Lawrence, the Chippewa publisher of the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, says Finn's legal troubles made life tougher for American Indian politicians. Lawrence himself ran for the same Senate seat as a Republican in 2000, and lost.

But Folstrom remembers Finn fondly for helping bring a much-needed new high school to Cass Lake a decade ago.

"There are a lot of communities in my district that could use a new high school," Folstrom said. "Our areas are ignored a lot of the time because we're poor. The state has a lot of power and the Legislature has a lot of power to assist communities that are in need."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)