In North Dakota’s state Capitol last Monday, Ruth Buffalo stood in the chambers with her hand raised and made history as the first Native American Democratic woman to be sworn into the state’s legislature.
Standing alongside other newly elected lawmakers during the swearing-in ceremony, Buffalo wore a traditional Native American dress and held an ornate fan made with eagle feathers given to her by her clan brother hours earlier.
“Eagle feathers in our culture are very significant,” she told HuffPost. “Oftentimes they’re gifted to people when they’ve accomplished a great achievement.”
It was an uncommon scene in North Dakota’s Capitol in Bismarck, Buffalo, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, told HuffPost. But it was a moment that she was proud to be a part of.
“It’s part of my identity and who I am,” Buffalo said of the traditional clothing. “It was to honor my ancestors, those that have gone before me, and the future generation.”
Buffalo said she asked for permission from the House minority leader to wear her traditional garb during the ceremony. She said it felt “weird” to have to ask permission, but she didn’t want to cause any disruptions during the event.
She was sworn in with more than a dozen other newly elected lawmakers. A photo of Buffalo raising her fist while looking up at her family in the balcony went viral. According to Buffalo, some of the women in her family were wearing traditional ribbon skirts.
“It’s exciting, but it’s an indicator that people want more of that. More representation that looks like them ― that they can relate to,” Buffalo said. Lea Black who photographed Buffalo’s viral moment, said it was “absolutely breathtaking to witness ... history in the making.”
“It’s both a sigh of relief, and a surge of excitement, to see a woman of indigenous origins to be representing the state of North Dakota,” Black told HuffPost in an email. “I think it’s evidence of a step in the right direction for all of humanity. We cannot be accurately represented without diversity.”
Buffalo won North Dakota’s 27th District, which includes Fargo, the state’s most populous city. In a shocking upset, she unseated Republican state Rep. Randy Boehning, who sponsored a voter ID law that many feared would suppress the Native vote in North Dakota.
But Buffalo, whose family lives on a reservation, didn’t run a campaign that targeted her opponent. Instead, she focused on specific issues concerning her district: health care accessibility, property taxes and funding for education.
Buffalo also didn’t run a campaign based solely on her Native American identity.
“Ruth ran not necessarily as a Native American woman, but as a woman in Fargo who wanted to talk about issues that were affecting her community,” Scott McNeil, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League, told the New York Times Buffalo had previously been the league’s secretary.
Buffalo says she’ll focus on bipartisanship and making the legislature “less polarized” in the next session.
It’s a value she was taught from a very young age.
“I grew up on a reservation, but I’m living in an urban district where I’ll be serving everyone, all people,” Buffalo said. “That’s just been a theme of how we were raised as indigenous people. We’re all related, we’re all on the same team, we’re all human beings.”
She added, “I was never raised to see party lines.”