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How Faith Spotted Eagle became the first Native American to win an electoral vote for president

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.

“This starship we refer to as Earth is on fire, and we are in need of first responders, and not more politicians,” Satiacum said Tuesday, adding that he was disillusioned after the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia over the summer.

“It became apparent that this is a huge distraction, this election,” Satiacum said of his experience at the convention, which was heavily protested by fellow Sanders supporters. “It doesn’t matter who ascends to the throne. It’s the Olympics — a football game. It’s a distraction for the elite.… How did we get Bozo the Clown and Mickey Mouse to choose from for president?”

At Monday’s electoral college meeting in Olympia, Satiacum prepared to carry out his protest vote, which could bring a $1,000 fine under Washington law. “I had that pen, my quill in hand; I was ready to make a ‘B’ for Bernard Sanders,” Satiacum said. He also thought about voting “water” for president, in tribute to the Dakota Access pipeline protesters near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

But as a fellow Native American elector, Dan Carpita of the Lemhi-Shoshone Tribes, began playing a ceremonial song on a flute, Satiacum “said a quick prayer to water” — and then remembered Spotted Eagle, whom he had hosted on his radio show several times over the last decade, and whom he had finally met in person at the recent Dakota Access protests. 

“My pen started writing F instead of B — well, what’s this — A, I, T, H, and I finished it out, ‘Spotted Eagle,’” Satiacum said. He then cast his vice presidential vote for Native American environmentalist Winona LaDuke. (LaDuke is not the first Native American to receive an electoral college vote for that office: Herbert Hoover’s vice president, Charles Curtis, was part Native American.)

Satiacum lovingly called Spotted Eagle his “grandma” and hailed her as a person “who can carry her own, who can do that, who has spirit, traditions, who has values, is centered.” His voice grew louder as he continued: “That’s a leader. That’s what they look like. They show up and show out. They have vision and foresight, and they have these qualities you need to move ahead and progress, to live, to survive!”

After the news broke Monday, Spotted Eagle said she was “in shock for a couple of hours.” Some journalists didn’t believe it either at first. KOMO-TV in Seattle tweeted Spotted Eagle’s name in quotation marks, as if it thought the name was fake. “Apologies to Faith Spotted Eagle,” the station tweeted later. “Bad error on our part.” Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of Vox, drew scorn when he tweeted, “As Federalist 37 argues, once you’ve already lost the election you may as well vote for someone with a funny/memorable name.”

Spotted Eagle shrugged off the journalists’ treatment. “I mentioned it to my son, and he said, ‘Well, you probably are imaginary in their world,’” she said, laughing.

Spotted Eagle was pro-Sanders and ambivalent about Clinton, though she said as a “survivor,” she liked Clinton’s initiative on addressing sexual abuse in the military. She also said it was a “frightful time” with Trump’s victory. “The people coming in are pro-oil, so I think for the next four years we’re going to be in a battle, and I think all of America is going to be in a battle.”

Yet this is nothing new to her, she said — nothing new at all. “The battle that we’re fighting is 500 years old. It’s about dispossession, it’s about occupying our land by a foreign country, or foreign individuals,” Spotted Eagle said. “The resistance has always been in my blood and my spirit since I was born.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @mattdpearce

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