Wyoming's First Arapaho Woman Legislator Is "Finding [Her] Voice" In The Capitol

Mar 13, 2020

During the legislative session, Representative Andi Clifford's days start before dawn. So, when her friend Representative Sara Burlingame picks her up from her hotel early on a February morning, the first thing on their agenda is getting caffeinated.

In line to order flat whites at a coffee shop in downtown Cheyenne, the two freshman democrats chat about the mindfulness class they have been attending.

"We've been meditating," Clifford says. "It helps our dialogue, and helps us get over things."

"I wasn't doing it last night at the second amendment [debate]," Burlingame quips, referring to House Bill 113, a firearms bill that the Wyoming Senate eventually killed. "But we're supposed to meditate on loving kindness."

Clifford says she plans to extend that "loving kindness" principal into a conversation with a colleague who she hasn't been seeing eye-to-eye with, and who she feels has been rude and dismissive towards her.

"I just need to let him know how I feel. I'll try to do it respectfully and I'll try to do it humbly, but I'm going to let him hear my voice," she says.

These sorts of disagreements and tense discussions come with the territory of being a state legislator.

"But Andi's the best at being grounded, and having [those discussions]," Burlingame says. "My advice half the time is, like, 'Punt that one. Don't bother.' But Andi's really fearless."

Clifford says she has to be fearless. When they arrive at the House chambers and she starts preparing for the day's session, she's a minority in three ways. She's one of only nine democrats in the 60-member chamber, a woman in a government that skews more than 80 percent male, and the first woman from the Wind River Reservation ever elected to Wyoming's legislature. And she did it by flipping a Republican district in 2018.

"I'm not one of the good ol' boys, and you know, I have a presence. But in the whole context of being a minority, a Northern Arapaho woman plus a democrat, I have way more frustrations than I do feeling like I'm educating, like it's a victory," Clifford says.

But educating her colleagues about life on the reservation has been a huge theme of Clifford's time in office -- whether it's explaining tribal gaming law, or the complex web of law enforcement jurisdiction in her district.

Take House Bill 26 . It would require county clerks in Wyoming to accept tribal ID cards for voter registration, but when the Select Committee on Tribal Relations began drafting that legislation, Clifford says some of her colleagues were missing some crucial background information.

"Yes, I passed my tribal ID around in committee," she laughs. "Because they just never saw one before. I think they were thinking of just a laminated piece of paper. But it actually looks like a very valid ID."

That put those concerns to rest. Five months later, the bill, which might have been a source of frustration in the legislature a few years ago, passed both chambers without much fuss. Clifford says that's the power of Indigenous representation.

Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today and a citizen of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, says she's far from the only Indigenous woman taking her seat at the table.

"2018 was really a year of outsiders. And it's hard to get any more outside than a Native woman, in terms of political participation," Trahant says.

He's spent the last several years reporting on an unprecedented wave of Native women running for and being elected to office at every level of government, particularly into statehouses.

"The thing I heard most about from that first wave in 2018 was that as women got into state government, the very first thing set out to do was call attention to Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women," Trahant says.

There is one other Native woman currently serving in Wyoming's legislature—Republican Senator Affie Ellis of Cheyenne, who's a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She and Clifford have been active in the Governor's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Task Force. Trahant notes that the two are unique in that they worked across the aisle to pass legislation aimed at addressing the crisis.

As for Clifford's role as an educator in the legislature, Trahant says she's not alone in that, either.

"One of the stories I think is so great about many of the Native women who are running for office is they're willing to do the basic building blocks," Trahant says. "Whether it's fundraising or building a coalition or problem solving [once in office]. It's not about running for office to gain attention, it's about running for office to solve problems."

At her desk on the House floor, while the chamber works through second readings of several bills, Clifford is firing off emails, Facebook messages and texts. When they gavel out for lunch, she explains she was checking in with the Fremont County Clerk, tribal leaders, and other constituents about the legislation up for debate.

She doesn't often get up on the house floor to speak, but that doesn't mean she's being passive.

"That's the other thing I'm getting savvy on is knowing when to push certain issues, and when to be quiet because it's not the right moment," Clifford says.

The result of that strategy, according to Clifford, is that when she does speak up, her colleagues take notice.

Like they do on a late February evening while the House debates one of the most controversial bills of the session: a mandated 48-hour waiting period for those seeking abortions. The midnight deadline for House bills to pass the first-floor vote is fast approaching. Democrats introduce four Hail Mary amendments aimed at diluting the bill and one-by-one, they are voted down.

When Rep. Clifford takes the mic, she directs the House to the section of the bill that allows for exceptions to the waiting period, and asks then them to strike three words: "appropriate medical judgment."

"The reason being, that's wishy-washy," Clifford says.

In the Arapaho language, she identifies herself as a No'oo, a mother, a Neiwoo, a grandma, and a Nehei, an auntie. She evokes the history of forced sterilizations of women in Indian County.

"A lot of my ancestors though, strong women, givers of life, things would happen to them medically where they could never be a mom," Clifford says. "That was the government, the colonized government. They took that away from her. And so 'appropriate,' to me, I look at it very differently."

With 33 aye votes, Clifford's amendment is the only one the House adopts that night.

This small but significant victory goes largely unnoticed back home. Like any politician, Clifford has constituents who don't support her. Some in her district wish she would push harder in support of Indigenous rights and sovereignty. She says she's making room for herself and other Native lawmakers to do that in the future.

"You know, I'm finding my voice, I'm getting more confident. And part of that is my own healing, too," Clifford says. "The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, we're prideful people. Very resilient. And there's a lot of good. Our ceremonies are strong, and we have a lot of smart people."

Now that the session has wrapped up, Clifford is starting her re-election campaign in earnest. But whether she secures a second term or not, there's one big reason why her time in the legislature matters. When Clifford entered the capitol for the first time as a legislator, there wasn't a woman from the reservation who had done it before. The next Wind River woman who runs will have someone to turn to.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member.