As Faith Spotted Eagle, 68, drove to the Yankton Sioux Reservation’s offices Tuesday morning, she remembered when she was a young girl, maybe 8 years old, fishing with her father along the Missouri River in South Dakota.
The pair were sitting with heavy cane poles on the banks where the tribal community of White Swan had been before the U.S. government built the Fort Randall Dam as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944, flooding White Swan and scattering its residents.
“My dad looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, my girl … someday you’re going to have to do something about all of this,’” Spotted Eagle said, recalling a far-off look in his eyes. “I remember sitting on that bank on that summer day and thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I’m only 8 years old. And he’ll said, ‘You’ll see.’”
Her father’s prediction came true. Spotted Eagle would later go on to become a prominent activist opposing the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines through tribal areas, and her activism has given her an unexpected and exalted place in U.S. history.
On Monday, Spotted Eagle appears to have become the first Native American to win an electoral college vote for president, according to two presidential historians consulted by the Los Angeles Times, Vanderbilt University professor Thomas A. Schwartz and author Mark Weston. (They were uncertain whether any of America’s major presidential candidates have ever had significant Native American ancestry, and the answer seems to be no.)
Spotted Eagle won a single vote in the electoral college, which came as a shock to her: She wasn’t running for president. She was taking her daughter to the airport Monday when she got the news in a message from a reporter.
“I thought it was fake news,” Spotted Eagle said, alluding to the hoaxes and conspiracy theories that dominated social media during the presidential campaign. “I told my daughter, ‘Is this real?’ She said, ‘I think it is.’”
The man who cast the vote also didn’t see it coming. Democratic Washington state elector Robert Satiacum, 56, decided to vote for Spotted Eagle mere moments before he cast his ballot.
Satiacum, a Native American radio host who belongs to the Puyallup Tribe in Washington, is a die-hard Bernie Sanders supporter and Dakota Access pipeline protester who has been frustrating Hillary Clinton supporters for weeks with vows not to vote for Clinton in the electoral college, at one point calling her a “criminal.”
Satiacum’s opposition to Clinton was not unusual within the Democratic Party this year. But as one of Washington’s 12 electors, who each represent the equivalent of more than half a million votes, Satiacum’s opinions mattered a great deal — especially in a state where all 12 of those electoral votes were legally supposed to go to Clinton.