Just months after the Indigenous Democratic Network—known throughout Indian country as INDN’s List—officially shut its doors, in January 2011, founder Kalyn Free found herself in the middle of a tribal election that had more twists and turns than an Oklahoma backroad.
“I was the attorney and senior advisor to the Bill John Baker for Cherokee Chief election,” Free says. “I started out as senior advisor on the campaign, and then as the election took the turns as it did, [Baker] suddenly found himself needing a lawyer. I was lead counsel on the recount, the court hearings, the appeals, the second election and the last appeal. That was 2011, which sucked the life out of me,” she said with a laugh.
Unlike INDN’s List, when her work with candidates might become less hands-on after election night, Free’s work for Baker continued past his swearing-in as Principal Chief on October 19, 2011, when Baker asked Free to be his personal attorney.
“I’m paid by Cherokee Nation, but I’m an outside contractor, an outside attorney,” Free, herself a member of the Choctaw Nation, explains. “I don’t work for the Nation. The Attorney General represents Cherokee Nation. I represent Chief Baker.”
Free sees her experience with Baker’s campaign as historic, a rare instance in which political science was employed within a tribal election.
“First and foremost, I think the Cherokee Nation election in 2011—I hate to use the word, because it’s become so trite—it was a sea change election,” says Free. “What the Cherokee people saw in that election was modern campaign tactics being applied in a tribal race, which they had never really been exposed to before. That changed the way Cherokee elections have been run in the past, using more modern campaign science being applied in tribal elections.
“I think it’s critically important because, regardless of which side you’re on, the incumbent’s or the challenger’s or running for an open seat, an informed body politic is a better body politic, whether you’re talking about tribal constituencies, state, federal or city council. I firmly believe that having issues fleshed out so that voters have a clear understanding of where the candidates stand on particular issues is important for democracy.”
Although Free says tribal politics are changing, she sees tribal elections as being more challenging in that it is a must for a candidate for tribal office to attend every event in a tribal community. On the other hand, it is more difficult to raise money for a tribal candidate outside of the tribal membership.
Although Free now spends much of her time near Tahlequah, Okla.—the Cherokee Nation capital—she continues to keep her eye on the Native electorate and on state-level elections within Oklahoma. Within this election, Free continues to see the Northwest, Midwest and the Northern Plains tribes as being key areas where the Native vote can be a deciding factor. On the other hand, Free says that her home state of Oklahoma has the potential to gain more political power if more was done by the tribes to promote the importance of voting in state and federal elections. She feels that the Oklahoma tribes, if they were to unite behind one candidate, “would be a force of nature.”
“If the Indian tribes in Oklahoma would recognize and do a true Get-Out-the-Vote voter initiative and register our tribal members and run elections like other tribes in other states run elections,” Free says, “then Oklahoma would be in play. Indian Country would be in play. The only reason why we’re not is apathy—sheer apathy—that the Indian vote in Oklahoma is not determinative of elections.”
One person Free sees as a rising star on the national stage is Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes, who is the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction. Currently, Juneau is the only Native American to hold a statewide office and was selected by the Democratic National Committee to speak at this year’s Democratic National Convention.
Juneau was the first Indian woman to win statewide the last four years,” says Free. “She was an INDN’s List candidate who came to our Campaign Camp. She could be an up-and-coming star in the Democratic Party. She may be somebody who we may be supporting for U.S. Senate or U.S. Congress someday.”
Another milestone for Free at this year’s DNC was seeing her client, Cherokee Nation Chief Baker, selected by the Oklahoma Democratic Party to announce the delegate count that would nominate President Obama as the official Democratic nominee for President for 2012.
“For Chief Baker to be asked by the Oklahoma Democratic Party to participate in the announcement of our delegate count is very significant because it shows that the Democratic Party in Oklahoma appreciates and recognizes the importance of having tribal members involved in the democratic process and in our party politics,” Free said. “Chief Baker didn’t ask to do that; he was asked to do that. That shows a tremendous amount of respect for the rightful place that Indian tribes should have and do have in Oklahoma.”
With this year’s presidential race going into the final stretch, Free said that Obama has done more than what she expected he would do for Indian country. This includes high level appointments within the Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Attorney General; improvement of the Indian Health Service; regular policy consultation with tribal leaders; and direct meetings with tribal leaders and the White House.
“I think that President Obama has been the best president Indian Country has ever had,” said Free. “When we were campaigning for him and endorsing him and were all excited about his campaign four years ago, we had certain, short little list of things that we wanted the administration to focus on, some asks. He has gone above and beyond.”
On the other side of the presidential coin, Free sees Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a step in the wrong direction not only for Indian Country, but for America as a whole.
“I don’t even want to think about that nightmare,” Free says. “I shudder to think, not just Indian country, but America as a whole. When you’re talking about Indian country, unfortunately so often you’re speaking of the least among us. The social safety net that sometimes is able to catch Indians and non-Indians alike will disappear. There’s a fundamental difference between Romney’s vision for America and Obama’s vision for America. We don’t represent the one percent; we represent the 47 percent that are out there working that Romney says is just looking for a handout. That is truly frightening to me.”
As for the legacy of INDN’s List, Free jokingly said that if she could have peered through a crystal ball, she wouldn’t have started the organization that helped over sixty Native Democrats get into mainstream American office. However, she said she is proud of the work that she and others on her staff accomplished in the six years that the organization was in existence. She is also proud to see that the Saint Paul, Minnesota-based Wellstone Action will pick up the torch of training future Native American candidates and political staffers. One of the leaders with Wellstone Action also happens to be a former INDN’s List staffer, Courtney Ruark-Thompson, a Cherokee Nation member who is director of Wellstone Action’s Native American Leadership Program.
The advice Free has for those who desire to get into politics is simple—get involved with local communities, political campaigns and the local branch of a state political party.
“If you think you want to run for office, whether it’s in two years or ten years, you need to work on campaigns,” Free says. “Volunteer for other candidates. See what it takes to run a campaign and understand that running for office is not just an art. It is a science as well. Learning the fundamentals of how to run a campaign—whether as a candidate, staff member or as a volunteer—that is the most important thing. Get that basic fundamental understanding and knowledge and get active in your party, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
Ultimately, Free’s campaign experience as an Oklahoma District Attorney and as a candidate for Oklahoma’s Second Congressional District are what placed Free on the path that created INDN’s List. However, the question remains—will Kalyn Free be a candidate for office in the future?
Her response: “Never say never.”