The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Native American women are headed to Congress. This is why it matters.

Centuries ago, colonists demoted indigenous women from leadership roles. We’ve been fighting to get them back ever since.

Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat who was elected to a U.S. House seat, gives a victory speech to supporters at an election party in Olathe, Kan., on Nov. 6. (Colin E. Braley/AP)

History was made, twice over, in Tuesday’s midterm elections, when two Native American women won seats in the House of Representatives. Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas, will be the first Native American women to serve in Congress.

Throughout Indian Country, as the interconnected community of Native Americans is affectionately known, indigenous people were overjoyed. On a night of many firsts (the first Muslim women were elected to Congress, and Davids is also the first openly gay person elected to represent Kansas), these victories were partly about representation. Native Americans were made citizens of this country only in 1924, and they weren’t afforded the right in some states to vote until 1948. “I never imagined a world where I would be represented by someone who looks like me,” Haaland said in her victory speech, to thundering cheers.

But this is about more than a marginalized group seeing its reflection in Congress. For Native American women, this is also about asserting their ancestral right to leadership in a society that has overlooked and undermined the power of indigenous women.

Native American women held tremendous power in pre-colonial, egalitarian societies across the Americas. Yet as a result of generations of colonialism, indigenous women have been made invisible, virtually written out of history and out of leadership by colonial officials.

In pre-colonial nations such as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of the Northeast, clan mothers played central roles in ensuring balanced governance and were responsible for appointing tribal leaders and chiefs. The clan mothers often had the first and the last say, sometimes shaping decisions about whether the men went to war, and served as respected counselors for their clans and communities.

Among the Diné of the Southwest, a matrilineal nation, it was always the women who owned property, and clans were and still are passed down through the women’s lineage. As with the Haudenosaunee and many other tribal nations during the point of contact with early settlers, Diné women were simply not given the same deference as men when it came to recognition from the settler officials.

Colonization fractured the delicate balance in many tribal nations, where women and men alike held valued roles in the community. Forced assimilation through federal government policies undermined the spiritual lifeways of indigenous people, who deeply valued feminine life sources, Mother Earth above all.

Men were designated heads of household by Indian agents in the early reservation era, and the convention of paternal last names helped replace any semblance of traditional gender balance in the home. Settlers also saw indigenous women virtually in the same manner that they perceived the land: there for the taking. Indigenous women have suffered generations of physical and sexual assaults at the hands of white men and colonial forces. Today, Native American women remain the most likely demographic to experience sexual and physical assault.

The historic wins of Davids and Haaland, and the many other victories for Native American women in elections nationwide (including Peggy Flanagan in Minnesota’s lieutenant governor race and Ruth Buffalo winning a seat in North Dakota’s House of Representatives), are indicative of a movement among indigenous people today to decolonize — including efforts to reclaim traditional philosophies and tribal languages and to rethink education in tribal schools — and reconnect to the strength of who we once were: nations with strong women, with gender equity and with women as valued leaders in the community.

Beyond gender, the wins of Davids and Haaland are significant for Native Americans. In my experience, many Native Americans struggle to trust fully in the American political system, because the federal government long eroded tribal sovereignty, stifled indigenous agency and created policies that disenfranchised tribal communities to the point of generational povertyand despair. More recently, legislation in North Dakota created obstacles for Native American voters in the state, adding voter suppression to the history of injustices.

In Albuquerque, Haaland spoke to some of those disparities. “Seventy years ago, Native Americans right here in New Mexico couldn’t vote,” she said. “I want to tell everyone in this room, people who have been under attack who deserve never to be erased: I see you, I’m listening.”

The ascent to political power is a final, formal recognition of the role of indigenous women. It reconnects Native voters to their peoples’ historic respect of all feminine life sources, including Mother Earth. Imagine the world that sort of reverence and balance will create.