Life as a Native woman in rural Minnesota was never easy for Nancy Beaulieu, but it got harder after 2016.
She saw racial tensions between some white residents and Native Americans in her northern Minnesota community spill out into the open after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In January, Beltrami County became one of the first in the nation to vote to ban refugees from resettling there. At a September rally in Bemidji, Minn., a mostly white crowd of thousands cheered when Trump looked out and praised their "good genes."
Beaulieu, a member of the Leech Lake tribe, said they decided to start "playing the game of politics." A team of organizers registered new Native American voters on nearby reservations, bused them to the polls and created regular radio programing to keep community members engaged.
It worked: Vote totals in four precincts around the Red Lake Reservation in Beltrami County went up between 22% and 45% from four years ago, and the votes in those precincts were cast more than 90% in favor of Joe Biden's campaign for president, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state voting data. A similar pattern played out in precincts on or around Native American reservations across northern Minnesota — blips of deep blue in the middle of red Trump country. Vote totals across the state were up 11% from four years ago.
Biden won Minnesota by 7 points and came within 3 points of flipping Beltrami County after Trump won the county by 10 points four years ago.
"You know why they showed up? Trump," said Beaulieu, a northern Minnesota organizer for clean-energy organization MN350. "They didn't believe in the DFL Party. They didn't believe Joe Biden was the best candidate for us. They wanted to vote against Trump."
In other battleground states, Native American voters turned out in record numbers, including Arizona, where Biden leads Trump by 11,000 votes. Native voter turnout may have also tipped the scales in neighboring Wisconsin, where the National Congress of American Indians estimates there are about 71,000 voting-age Native Americans. Biden won the state by about 20,000 votes, pending a recount.
"The main word I hear about Indians is they're invisible," said Tadd Johnson, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the U's first director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations. "But this time they showed up and were totally visible at the polls. Their voting and their visibility made a difference."
For organizers who work every year to turn out the Native vote, it's a huge achievement, especially during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Native American communities.
"It was definitely difficult due to the barriers," said Clinton Fairbanks, who works in government relations with the Leech Lake tribe and helped drive voters to the polls. "There were a lot of people who were scared to vote this year. They didn't want to go to the polls and they didn't want to vote in person."
Minnesota is home to 11 sovereign tribal nations and more than 114,000 people who identify as entirely or part Native American or Alaska Native, making up 2% of the state's population. Nearly 40% of the state's Native American population lives in the seven-county metro area, while others are spread out across rural areas in the state, including on reservations, according to data from the state demographer's office.
In rural counties such as Beltrami, where more than 20% of the population is Native, their votes are critical for Democratic candidates in close races for Congress, the Legislature and local office.
Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton by a nearly 6-point margin in 51 Minnesota precincts where at least 25% of the population is Native, but that margin didn't necessarily trickle down to local DFL candidates on the ballot, who lost competitive races for the state House and Senate near Bemidji. Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson was ousted by Republican Michelle Fischbach in the Seventh District. Republicans maintained narrow control of the state Senate and chipped away at Democrats' majority in the House.
Ernest Joseph Oppegaard-Peltier III, a Native organizer who worked with MN350 this cycle, said there's distrust between some Democrats on the state level and Native community members over environmental issues such as Enbridge Energy's Line 3 pipeline replacement project, which was just issued a key water quality permit from the state. And Native candidates don't always get the party's backing to run for office, including Charles Dolson, an attorney who had been executive director of the Red Lake Nation. He lost the DFL endorsement this spring for a Bemidji-area seat in the state Senate.
"That's the common thought in Native country here in the deep north," Oppegaard-Peltier said. "We've been burnt so many times by the Democratic Party it's hard for us to support the party itself."
He said that feeling of distrust meant some of the Native community members he helped register to vote ultimately cast their ballots for Trump, who did some voter outreach in Native communities. Ivanka Trump traveled to Minnesota in July to open an office dedicated to investigating cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.
DFL Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth band who became the first Native woman elected to statewide office in 2018, said there's natural distrust of government among Native communities, and no political party should assume they are guaranteed their support.
"It takes hard work," she said. "There is a real opportunity here to spend the time over the next two years of building those intentional relationships with the Native community as we go into the next electoral cycle."
There were bright spots for Native candidates: a record-breaking six Native American and Native Hawaiian candidates were elected to Congress this cycle. In Minnesota, Mary Kunesh-Podein, of Standing Rock Lakota descent, will become the first Native woman to serve in the state Senate in its more than 150-year history. Yankton Sioux Tribe member Heather Keeler of Moorhead will join Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, in the House.
On the local level, Audrey Thayer, a White Earth band member, won a Bemidji City Council seat, and Fond du Lac band member Lyz Jaakola won a seat on the City Council in Cloquet, Minn.
"Every year they kind of stack on each other," said Keeler, who recently tweeted a picture of her moccasins planted on the floor of the Minnesota House. "A lot of people will stick to tribal government and they'll step up in those spaces, but we have to blow the door open and say we're here. We're on our land, we're supporting the people in our communities."
Staff writers Brooks Johnson and Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.