The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Native American women candidates seek historic wins in November

Native American candidate Deb Haaland, who is running for Congress in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, speaks in Albuquerque earlier this month. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

ALBUQUERQUE — Deb Haaland has known a lot of firsts in her rise through New Mexico’s Democratic Party ranks. In 2014, she was the first Native American woman from a major party to run for statewide office here when she sought to be lieutenant governor. After that bid failed, she became the first Native American woman in the country to lead a state political party. On Nov. 6, barring a shocking upset, the 57-year-old member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, could become the first Native American woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

It’s a destination that just a few years ago, Haaland would never have imagined reaching. And even now, sitting in her campaign office in the city’s Nob Hill neighborhood, the Sandia Mountain range looming in the distance, she is struck by the unlikely path she took to get here.

“Yeah, that seems like kind of a big deal,” Haaland said, with a disarming laugh. “It’s kind of hard for me sometimes to wrap my head around the fact that it’s me that we’re all talking about and not someone else.”

Haaland’s bid for Congress, in the strongly Democratic 1st District, has soaked up most of the attention, but 2018 has been a breakout political year for Native American women across the country with “far more than ever running,” according to Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, who has been tracking races. Another Native American woman, Kansas Democrat Sharice Davids, is also running for a House seat. More than a hundred women elsewhere have taken part in races at local and state levels, an unprecedented level of participation that has produced hashtags — #SheRepresents, #NativeVote18 — and a wide range of candidates that include Democrats and Republicans, but also Green Party, Independent and Libertarian candidates.

Though the emergence of so many Native American women running for office has seemed to come out of the blue, it is in many ways the result of seeds planted over the past decade at the community and regional levels.

“The narrative had been that Native Americans were gone, that we’re invisible, that we’re part of history,” said Jodi Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Tribe who served as special adviser for Native American issues to President Obama. “Well, we’ve been here all along trying to be seen and trying to be relevant and trying to find ways to address our issues. I rejoice in the fact that we’ve got the visibility and are positioned to help lead and not just be seen, but to represent.”

Though Haaland has been active in New Mexico politics for more than a decade, she never saw herself as someone born to the political stage. A single mother, she began college at 28, started her own salsa-making business so she could stay at home with her daughter, went on to earn a law degree at 45, is still paying back student loans and is 30 years sober. She was happy to work on campaigns, make calls, organize events and help get out the vote, but running for office was something others did.

Until it wasn’t.

The race for lieutenant governor was a first step. Quiet and reserved by nature, Haaland became more comfortable telling her story. She campaigned across the state. She reached out to donors. She knocked on so many doors her knuckles were bruised.

“There aren’t any doorbells in Indian Country,” she said, laughing again.

Haaland lost the race, but discovered her voice. If she wasn’t always at ease speaking up, it was important for her to represent those who hadn’t had a say, especially the members of Native American tribes across the state who make up just over 10 percent of New Mexico’s population. Now she’s on the precipice of taking that voice — and their voice — to Washington.

Across the country, many other Native American women are fully immersed in the homestretch of their own campaigns.

In Kansas, congressional candidate Davids, 38 and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, is challenging incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder in a suburban Kansas City district Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016. Republicans have recently pulled money out of the race, a signal of their pessimism about Yoder’s chances. Davids, a Cornell Law School graduate and mixed martial arts practitioner would also be the first gay Native American woman elected.

Davids’s candidacy came under attack this week when a Kansas Republican official posted a message on Facebook directed to the president of a Democratic women’s organization: “Your radical socialist kick boxing lesbian Indian will be sent back packing to the reservation.” The message was followed by dozens of exclamation points.

Davids told the Kansas City Star that the message “doesn’t represent Kansas values, and it doesn’t represent the values of the Republicans we know, many who support this campaign.” Republican leaders in Kansas condemned their colleague’s remarks about Davids and the official resigned his position Wednesday.

In Minnesota, both of the leading choices for lieutenant governor are Native American. Peggy Flanagan, the Democratic Farm Labor candidate, is a White Earth Ojibwe while her opponent, Donna Bergstrom, is Red Lake Ojibwe. No matter who wins, it will be the first time a Native American woman has been elected to a statewide position in Minnesota.

In the Idaho governor’s race, Democrat Paulette Jordan, 38, is challenging Lt. Gov. Brad Little (R). Jordan, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, would be the state’s first Native American governor and its first woman governor. And she would be the country’s first Native American governor — although her candidacy remains a long shot in red Idaho.

For Jordan, the emergence of so many Native American women candidates this year makes perfect sense.

“Many of our cultures are matriarchal. My grandmothers were chiefs and leaders of the people, so it feels natural for me to step up and lead,” Jordan said in an interview. “When you have women across the country and even internationally rising up together, it’s empowering. And to me, I see it as now or never.”

That sense of urgency is widespread among Native American women, and their historic level of political involvement has been fomented by a number of factors, said Gillette, the former Obama adviser. She cited the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as a motivating element, but not the only one. There’s widespread frustration that poverty and ongoing problems with substandard education remain unaddressed by state and national leaders. And there is also a growing anger over infringement on land rights and environmental degradation.

Many of those causes coalesced two years ago when representatives of hundreds of tribes traveled to the Standing Rock Reservation to take part in protests against a private oil company pipeline that crossed sacred burial grounds and went under a dam on the Missouri River that supplied the tribe’s drinking water.

The Standing Rock protest is cited by many of the Native American women as part of their inspiration for becoming more involved in politics and running for office.

“It added to this ‘Why not me?’ moment,” Gillette said. “’Why shouldn’t I also run? Why shouldn’t I try to be our voice at the table?’”

Haaland remembers watching the news about Standing Rock and reading posts on Facebook from friends and others who were there. In September 2016 she decided she needed to be there too.

“I felt like it was history that was happening before our eyes. And I really wanted to be a part of it,” Haaland said. “It felt like it could change the trajectory about the environment and the land, and I needed to be there to see what was happening firsthand.”

It was also an opportunity to bond with other Native American women who were leaders in their communities and took on many of the organizing roles at the protest. For Haaland, sharing in the historic Native American moment was something her life had been building toward.

Both of Haaland’s parents were in the military, so she moved often as a child, attending 13 schools in 12 years. But no matter where they went, Haaland said, her Native American mother and grandparents worked to keep tribal traditions alive for her and her three siblings.

Her grandfather would record traditional songs on to a reel-to-reel tape and the family would gather around and listen to them. She spent summers in the tiny town of Mesita on the Laguna Pueblo, about 45 miles west of Albuquerque, climbing the mesas and swimming in the lake. Haaland’s father, a Marine who was the grandson of Norwegian immigrants and earned a Silver Star in Vietnam, encouraged the history lessons and his children’s embrace of their Native American heritage.

Speaking at a powwow in a downtown city park last month, Haaland told the crowd she can trace her family’s local roots to the 12th century and referred to herself as a 35th generation New Mexican. And then she reminded them that Native Americans weren’t allowed to vote in New Mexico until 1948.

“I’m ready to fight at a moment’s notice,” she said. “Native Americans are the most underrepresented folks in our system. If we have a vote, we have a voice.”

Soon after addressing the crowd, a young woman approached Haaland tentatively. They talked for a moment, smiled and embraced.

“I was nervous because she’s an inspiration to me,” recounted Michele Curtis, 30, who was at the event with her husband and their daughter. “I told her I was from Navajo Nation and that what she is doing makes me want to help my tribe. And I told her that I was very proud of her for what she is accomplishing.”