LaRenda Morgan did not hesitate when Oklahoma Democratic Party chairman Mark Hammons asked her to become the party’s new Native American liaison.
She saw the need for greater outreach every time she spoke with lawmakers who needed to understand Native issues and the constituents who needed their voices heard.
Before she ran unsuccessfully in 2016 for the Democratic nomination in House District 93, Morgan lobbied lawmakers on issues surrounding the Indian Child Welfare Act, a law that sets minimum federal standards for child custody actions surrounding parental rights termination, adoption and the removal and foster care placement of Native American children.
She often encountered lawmakers who could not wrap their heads around the issues or their importance to tribe members.
“I’ve gone to the state leaders and legislators, and I felt like I talked my head off,” said Morgan, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. “I didn’t see anything on their faces that showed that anything was clicking.”
On the other side of the equation, many of her fellow tribe members prefer to engage in intertribal politics rather than venture into state-level voting. In fact, she is the first person from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes to file for state-level election.
Through her new position, Morgan wants to bridge the gaps she sees between Native American and mainstream politics. She said many cultural and systemic barriers — largely stemming from decades of disenfranchisement — inhibit political engagement for tribal members.
“Even now, as I take people into events, there’s still a standoffish feeling between the people in the party and the Natives I’m bringing,” Morgan said. “That’s the barrier I’m hoping to break so when I try to recruit Natives to be involved, they won’t have that feeling.”
Because of this responsibility, Morgan often finds herself not only a liaison between the tribes and the state Democratic Party, but also a liaison between the tribes and U.S. politics in general. While larger tribes such as the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee nations regularly field state-level candidates, Morgan said engagement falls off sharply with the smaller tribes.
“There are 35 tribes that aren’t to that point yet,” she said. “For how many tribes we have in this state, we don’t have very much representation in the state Senate and the House.”
When Morgan turns her attention to building relations and strengthening Democratic engagement with tribes, she runs into Republican majorities in the state and in many of the tribes. The Chickasaw Nation closely affiliates with the Republican Party. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole represents Oklahoma’s 4th District and is Chickasaw, and his district splits representation of Cheyenne and Arapaho lands with 3rd District Congressman Frank Lucas.
Furthermore, the Cheyenne and Arapaho areas surrounding Concho are rural and mostly conservative.
So there are hurdles, but Morgan identifies as a conservative Democrat, which means her issues often dovetail with her Republican neighbors.
Still, she said she often gets shut down when she speaks with tribal leaders about the state Democratic Party.
“I’ve been cut off. I’ve spoken with a few tribal leaders that were like, ‘Well, I’m a Republican,” Morgan said. “And I said to them, ‘Well, that’s great, and I respect that, but you might have tribal members that are Democrat, and I want to extend the invitation to your tribe and say, ‘Is there anything the Democratic Party can do to help you? We’re here to support the tribes.’”
She said this congenial give-and-take helps smooth over the partisanship.
“The response I’ve gotten back is good,” Morgan said. “They say, ‘I respect that, LaRenda.’ … You know, the tribal communities are very tight-knit. They stick close to their tribes, and I’m very close to my tribe. And there are a lot of Natives who are registered Democrats, but they’re not involved. They just vote, or sometimes they don’t even vote.”
And while she encourages political action at the grassroots level — activity that can force legislators to listen to Native American policy issues — Morgan also wants more people to take the chance she did in running for the state House last year.
“We’re trying to get the message out to tribal leaders that, hey, when your term is over with your tribe, consider running for a state office,” she said.
Headline: Tribal bond, LaRenda Morga is the Oklahoma Democratic Party’s new Native American liaison.