Leah Slick-Driscoll is a social studies teacher at the Meskwaki Settlement School. She delivers a handmade cake at the Meskwaki Tribal gymnasium to incentivize her students to caucus. Photo by Aliyah Chavez / Indian Country Today
Donnielle Wanatee stands on a small wooden stage in the middle of the Meskwaki Tribal gymnasium. She raises her voice to speak: “Welcome and thank you for attending your 2020 precinct caucus."
For the next two hours, Wanatee led the Meskwaki Democrats in caucusing. She gave clear directions on how the procedures worked, she pulled out the calculator on her cell phone to crunch numbers, and she walked around with a clipboard to document the information.
Standing right behind Wanatee the entire night are three other Meskwaki women. They help her clarify directions, count official numbers and pass out materials for caucus-goers.
This group of Meskwaki women say they are passionate about politics — and they say it is particularly important in this election cycle.
“What brings us together is one common enemy: Donald Trump,” Wanatee says.
Democrats around Iowa rallied Monday night to caucus for a presidential candidate who could potentially beat Donald Trump in November’s general election. This happened too at the Meskwaki Tribal gymnasium where the caucus was held.
Wanatee holds a special position in her precinct. She is the Meskwaki precinct’s Democratic chairperson. She volunteers all of her time to fulfill this role. She has been trained and certified to run the Meskwaki caucus. She is also a full-time student and mother.
“Oh yeah, after this [the caucus], she’s going home to study,” says Suzanne Buffalo, a Meskwaki community member. “I think she said she has class at 8:30am tomorrow morning.”
Wanatee and Buffalo are sisters. They say that their father, Donald Wanatee Sr. has played an instrumental role in their political activity. Wanatee Sr. was the precinct chairperson at the Settlement during its first caucus in 2000.
Buffalo estimates that she’s been involved in the process since 1997. She says it has changed a lot, citing that in the early days of the precinct, non-Native allies helped the Meskwaki’s understand the process of caucusing.
And now Buffalo mentors Wanatee.
“I’m just the damage control person,” Buffalo jokes. She initially intended to attend Monday night’s caucus as an attendee but quickly realized Wanatee needed help.
“Women supporting women is very important,” Buffalo says. “Traditionally if you want to learn something, it is okay to go to another woman so they can teach you.”
There is another reason why these sisters volunteer their time.
“It goes to missing and murdered individuals,” Wanatee says.
The issue hits particularly close to home for this community.
In 2018, Mollie Tibbetts, a non-Native student at the University of Iowa student went missing 30 miles away from the Settlement. Her body was found nearly a month after she went missing.
“Rita Papakee is a Meskwaki woman and she’s been missing for five years now,” says Wanatee. ”We’re frustrated that it is taking so long to find out what happened to her.”
“For us, it is important to remember that these issues live way beyond politics for us. They are real life and that’s why we need to take this especially seriously.”
Leah Slick-Driscoll, whose Meskwaki name is Wasosea, teaches high school students at the Meskwaki Settlement school. She is known in the community for making sure her students are informed about national politics.
“These students won’t be my students forever,” Slick-Driscoll says. “But if I can get my foot in the door to let them know how important this is … than that is step one in creating a positive pattern.”
Slick-Driscoll has students create a bulletin board of every presidential candidate’s policies. To do this, she ensures they read news articles about candidates and regularly check national polling numbers.
On Monday night, Slick-Driscoll offered students extra credit if they went caucusing. She also baked a cake for her students as another incentive to attend.
And they did attend.
A group of seven students participated. They even answered questions in a live interview with Indian Country Today at the event. On camera, they discussed which candidates they considered supporting. One student shared they were being strategic based on who could defeat Trump.
They said the cake was good too.
An hour and a half drive away from the Meskwaki tribal gymnasium, Slick-Driscoll’s daughter was encouraging the Native students at the University of Iowa to caucus as well.
Little Wolf Woman, also known as Keely Driscoll, helped plan an Indigenous led “pre-caucus social” at the University of Iowa. She partnered with other members of the the Native American Student Association to provide dinner, refreshments, desserts and painting before the official caucus event began Monday night.
Driscoll, Meskwaki and Winnebago, is a 19-year-old student at the University. She majors in International Studies, Native Studies and Sustainability. She says encouraging other young Native people to be politically active is important to her because of the Meskwaki women who have acted as role models in her life.
“I feel so lucky to have Meskwaki women to look up to like my mom and others,” Driscoll said. “Some Indigenous youth don’t have positive role models but I’ve been really lucky in that sense. I want to encourage young people to grow into those spaces too."
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