Despite the required recount, North Dakota tribes and Indian country were already celebrating the efforts put forth for Indian champion Heidi Heitkamp’s improbable victory in her bid to hold Democrat Kent Conrad’s United States Senate seat. After Conrad’s announced retirement one year ago Republicans were already counting conservative North Dakota in their win column.
Standing in the way of North Dakota turning solid red was a determined tribal ground game that matched the winning candidates resolve.
A bond that started 15 years ago grew into an unstoppable unification between Heitkamp and the North Dakota tribes who realized their destiny was inextricably linked in the 2012 elections. Heitkamp inspired tribes to protect this precious Senate seat and reminded tribes that Conrad had inherited the seat from the loved Quentin Burdick who defended North Dakota tribes for over three decades.
Heitkamp paddled upstream against a heated anti-Obama environment and an intense media campaign from outside Republican interest groups that out-funded her 20-1. So vicious were the attack ads, from television to political mail outs that jammed mailbox space, that North Dakotans finally said enough is enough, “We know Heidi…we trust Heidi.”
Heitkamp was unable to match ad purchases launched the single largest retail political campaign in North Dakota history. Crisscrossing the state and shaking hands with virtually every voter in the entire state. Indian tribes received special attention.
Being in the heart of pow wow country on the Northern Plains Heitkamp had no problems finding thousands of Indians to reach out to every weekend.
From June to November she traveled repeatedly to tribal lands until it reached a point that even Indian children were on a first name basis with her. As the pace of the campaign picked up she openly expressed her only road to Washington, D.C. was through Indian country. Tribes were eager to defend this pathway.
Suddenly North Dakota tribes became a part of one of the most crucial congressional races in the country possibly even for control of the Senate.
From the beginning of the campaign trail to the final week, each reservation hosted Native Vote rallies—Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa claiming victory for the biggest and most enthusiastic.
Heitkamp did a lot more than shake hands and dance at powwows. She demonstrated a mastery of tribal issues, showcasing her understanding of tribal sovereignty, Indian law and treaty rights. She never hesitated to sit down with tribal leaders and educators for hours discussing substantive issues.
Tribes and their members decided early on that they would go up or down with Heitkamp and that they were going to stick with her win or lose.
Heitkamp’s efforts and the efforts of her tribal surrogates showed in the victories of the numbers. Mountrail County (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation), a highly even population diversity of Indian and non-Indian voters, reported 1,742 votes for Heitkamp and 1672 for Republican candidate Rick Berg. Benson County (Spirit Lake Sioux Nation) reported Heitkamp 1,451 votes and Berg 707 votes.
Finally, the most evident impacts of Native Vote were declared by Rolette County (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) reporting Heitkamp 3,660 votes and Berg 900 votes, and Sioux County (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) casted 962 votes for Heitkamp and Berg received 184 votes.
As results continued to roll in through the early morning from the final ND precincts, Heitkamp and her supporters forever held on strong amidst the Republican dominance in the other state races, but was also a part of history in the making with becoming the first woman ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate for her state.
Vonnie Lone Chief is the former editor of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Times and former Press Secretary for the Three Affiliated Tribes. She is Arikara/Dakota, and is a direct descendant of William Deane Jr., the last sub-chief of the Prairie Sod Village Band of Arikara who carried the name Lone Chief.