Tatewin Means Wants To Be The First Native American Woman Attorney General

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Soon after Tatewin Means started to think seriously about running for South Dakota attorney general, someone suggested she call prominent Democrats across the state to seek counsel and endorsements. The idea seemed like a sensible one. But the reactions she heard from her call list, which happened to be recommended by older, white men, were far from encouraging.
“It was very negative, not toward me necessarily, but just the lay of the land: ‘This is a red state, not friendly to Democrats. And on top of that, you’re a woman and you’re American Indian,’” Means recalled. “I know those realities. I didn’t need anybody to point that out to me. I’ve lived a lifetime being an indigenous woman in a state that’s predominantly white. But it was so discouraging that they were saying don’t even waste your time, don’t even try.”
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Some in Means’ shoes might have folded right there. It had, after all, taken the single mom months to come around to the idea of putting her two kids through a statewide campaign in the first place. But the 37-year-old prosecutor didn’t back down. If anything, she said the conversations strengthened her resolved to run.
“At first it made me pause to say well, maybe it would be a waste of time, but then there was that soul-searching, realizing what it is I wanted to do, and it’s about breaking down those barriers,” she said. “Okay, you’re putting up more barriers in front of me? I’m going to break those down, too.”
On Friday, she made her barrier-breaking bid official, announcing her campaign in an open letter to South Dakota. She followed up with her first campaign video on Monday, pledging to “hold those in power accountable” and “protect us all from those that would take advantage of our most vulnerable.”
“I know that the attorney general can be a great visionary," Means says in the video. "And as your attorney general, I will use what I have learned as a lawyer and a teacher to ensure the law is applied fairly, no matter who you are.”
Means’ bid to overcome the odds in a red state has implications beyond South Dakota’s challenging political landscape for Democrats. She was recruited to run as part of the Democratic Attorneys General Association’s 1881 Initiative, which is seeking to fill half of all attorneys general roles nationwide with women by 2022. “Tatewin Means may be new to South Dakota politics, but she is not new to the needs of South Dakota, nor is she new to the hard work required to serve as the Attorney General in South Dakota — and that is what makes her a natural fit with our first class of 1881 Initiative candidates,” Democratic Attorneys General Association Executive Director Sean Rankin said in a statement to Refinery29.
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Means, who is Sisitonwan Dakota, Oglala Lakota, and Ihanktonwan Nakota, is also one of a number of Native American women pursuing potentially history-making bids for office this year. If elected, Means would be the first woman to hold the role in her state and the first Native American woman to serve as a state attorney general nationwide, according to DAGA. Elections elsewhere could also result in the country’s first Native female governor and congresswoman. To Means, the opportunity to be a “first” makes the decision to run especially meaningful.
“It’s all about chipping away at those barriers. We have to start somewhere. It doesn’t happen overnight and oftentimes it doesn’t happen with one fell swoop — it takes time and patience and persistence,” she said. “We have to have a start somewhere, and so why not me? If I’m able to, if I have resources and a support system that enables me to do that, then that’s my responsibility to future generations to take on that challenge.”
Tatewin Means
Means is no stranger to barrier-breaking. For much of her career, she’s worked in the male-dominated worlds of law enforcement and the judiciary. “I have a lifetime of experience always being the underrepresented individual in the room whether it’s race, gender, or socioeconomic status,” she said. “I’m carrying with me that lifetime of experience of being the voice for the voiceless or advocating for those who are underrepresented.”
That experience also includes a record of public service and activism. Her father, the late activist and actor Russell Means, ran for president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and worked on international human rights issues.
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After attending undergraduate and law school out of state, she returned to South Dakota and served as attorney general of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, a role that familiarized her with the ins and outs of tribal, state, and federal law, for more than four years and on statewide task forces on child abuse and reforming how juvenile cases, especially those involving Native American teens, are handled in the criminal justice system. She is currently the chair of graduate studies at Oglala Lakota College, a university on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Those experiences informed both her policy priorities — reducing recidivism rates, tackling the opioid addiction, and curbing child abuse — and her collaborative approach to governing that brings together law enforcement, treatment providers, and communities to craft multifaceted approaches to lowering crime and protecting people. “One of the most appealing aspects [of the attorney general position] to me is the fact that it is a position that has tremendous leadership capabilities, tremendous abilities to bring various stakeholders together, instead of everyone working in silos,” she said.
The role of attorney general — often called a state’s top cop or the people's attorney — touches many aspects of voters’ everyday lives. But in the current political backdrop, the positions, in blue states at least, have also become a key component of the anti-Trump resistance. Democratic attorneys general from across the country have joined hundreds of legal actions challenging the administration’s actions on everything from DACA and the travel ban to net neutrality.
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In an interview, Means declined to specify which, if any, of those challenges she’d join as South Dakota attorney general — or what role she envisions playing in that broader political strategy — saying that while challenges related to environmental issues would be a priority, others would be reviewed on a “case-by-case basis” and based on the law. “I will never make a decision either way just based on party politics,” she said. “It’s definitely people over politics.” (Means sent an email after the call adding that she would push back on actions by the administration that she saw as in violation of the law and harmful to South Dakotans. “No matter who you are — even the President — I believe that no one is above the law,” she wrote.)
There’s no doubt that Means faces an (incredibly steep) uphill battle for the seat. She’s a Democrat running in a state where Trump won more than 60% of the vote. Only three Democrats have ever served as attorney general in the state’s 130-year history. And before getting to the general election ballot, she’d have to overcome several expected rivals within her own party at a nominating convention attended by local Democratic leaders and candidates.
“It’s within the realm of possibility, but I wouldn't say within the realm of normal probability,” David Wiltse, an assistant professor of politics at South Dakota State University, said of her chances. “Despite the gains that the non-presidential party makes whenever you have an unpopular president, even with that boost, it will be very difficult for any of the Democratic candidates to get elected.”
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But Means brings strong credentials to the table, he added, and her very presence in the race could have a lasting impact on state politics. “[The nominating process] is all about party building and building relationships, and her candidacy could have really positive effects on the party...making some real bridges between the Democratic Party and the American Indian population here,” Wiltse said. “I think there is some potential for that.”
Means has already seen some evidence of that influence; as she travels the state to make her case, she says she’s hearing more young Native women expressing an interest in getting involved themselves someday. As for the challenging landscape ahead, she says she “has more faith in the people of South Dakota than the statistics do” and feels her bid will be buoyed by “a strong contingency that are tired of the status quo.”
“We all have a responsibility to our future generations. Because of my experiences, because of who I am, my identity, bringing that different worldview to an office like the AG position can be really empowering,” Means added. “I think I'm giving everyone the chance to at least see the possibility of how bringing someone in who isn’t your typical candidate, what that means, what that looks like. That’s really powerful for some people to see that. I have faith in our citizens of South Dakota, in our voters, that they will see the possibilities that are there.”
2018 will see an unprecedented number of female candidates in ballots across the country. More than 500 women are currently running for the House, Senate, or governorships — and that's without taking into account the number of candidates vying for local and statewide seats. Refinery29 is committed to spotlight female candidates, but particularly women of color, who have risen up to the challenge to say: "It's our turn."
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