Before she was in Congress, Rep. Deb Haaland was initially resistant to make her Native American heritage the hallmark of her campaign for a US House seat in New Mexico.
Out of a concern people would think she was solely focused on Native American issues, the freshman Democrat told CNN in an interview earlier this month, “We thought we’ll just play that part a little cool.”
But her voters disagreed.
“They wanted that,” she said, adding that she changed her mind following warm feedback from talking to supporters. “They seemed proud to be able to send the first Native American woman to Congress.”
Flash forward to this year where Haaland made history as one of the two first female Native Americans in Congress.
Haaland feels that she and Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, the other Native American congresswoman, embody a group that’s long been underrepresented, and they bring experience uniquely shaped by “being raised in a Native American household, participating in cultural activities, and just understanding what it’s like to live ‘on the res’ so to speak.”
At a time when Native American issues typically only break through the news cycle when attached to controversy – from derogatory comments President Donald Trump has made about Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Native American elder Nathan Phillips’ clash with Kentucky Catholic high school students last weekend – Haaland is poised to be Washington’s most visible advocate for Native Americans and redefine how Capitol Hill addresses issues in their communities.
Old vs. New
By 9:15 in the morning on the day Haaland was sworn into Congress, she already had had her third press interview.
At the time, she was sitting at her empty desk, talking to a local journalist through FaceTime. Meanwhile, five news photographers are crammed in her office to capture the scene just hours before she’s sworn in.
The moment is simple but striking.
Haaland is wearing a traditional Pueblo dress – a bright palate of colors highlighted by a turquoise blouse and a red woven belt that’s a century old. Hanging from her waist is a string of old silver dollars turned into jewelry, a custom Native Americans started a long time ago because, as Haaland put it, they “didn’t necessarily have use for coins.”
After the interview, she puts on a pair of trendy, thick-framed glasses and checks her cellphone. Next to her is one of the few decorations on her bare walls–a sign with four words: “Resist. Protect. Love. Repeat.”
The image of Haaland standing in her new congressional office is a juxtaposition of old versus new, tradition versus historic firsts, on the reservation versus far from it. Here is a woman who identifies as a 35th-generation New Mexican, yet helped start a new American precedent.
“I just felt like I should represent my people,” she says, when asked about the significance of wearing her dress on the day she’s sworn in. “I thought it would just make some folks proud out there.”
A history in New Mexico
Haaland, whose late father was Norwegian-American and whose mother is Laguna of Pueblo, grew up living all over the country. Both her parents served in the military, and her father is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was awarded the Silver Star Medal saving other Marines in the Vietnam War.
The combination of spending time with her grandparents on the reservation as well as bouncing back and forth between the coasts with her parents helped shape her perspective of the country’s challenges, she says, both from within and outside the Native American community.
Haaland worked at a bakery after high school and later went to the University of New Mexico, where she graduated with an English degree while pregnant. A single mom, she started a salsa company and then went on to law school.
She would later graduate from a program by Emerge New Mexico that helps train Democratic women to run for office. In 2012, she worked as the Native American Vote Director for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and then ran as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2014, which she lost.
After that election, she became the chair of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, the first Native American woman in the country to lead a state party. In 2016, she also traveled to North Dakota to take part in the protests over plans to build a pipeline underneath a key source of water for the Standing Rock Reservation. Haaland helped build support for the movement and cooked a pot of green chili stew for the chairman of the tribe and his family.
“It was a wonderful place,” she said, recalling the camp where protesters stayed for months. “They had singing and dancing at nighttime. It was really remarkable that they were protesting in such a strong cultural, peaceful way.”
With then-Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham running for governor in 2018, Haaland began campaigning to replace her as the representative for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, which covers most of Albuquerque.
Former Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma taught Haaland during her undergraduate years and helped her get into law school. Harris, whose children are enrolled members of the Comanche Indian tribe, stopped by Haaland’s new office to greet her on swearing-in day.
In an interview, Harris pointed to a school of thought that public officials need to have once-a-year training on government relations with Native American tribes, as well as issues that tribes face on reservations.
“People forget,” Harris said in an interview. “That’s what Deb helps us do. She’ll help us see what Native Americans mean to this country and what their special needs are in America.”
Haaland fights back
Already, Haaland has become a high-profile voice pushing back against Trump’s racially-charged moniker – “Pocahontas”– for Warren. Earlier this month, the President again made a mocking reference, this time invoking the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, when scores of Sioux members were killed by US soldiers.
Trump tweeted video of Warren drinking a beer on Instagram Live.
“If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!”
Haaland called the reference to Wounded Knee “horrible.”
“That was such a dark part of American history,” she added. “Over 300 men, women and children were killed, and it’s nothing to joke about. He just has the worst, worst, worst taste. Doesn’t know our history. It was appalling.”
She also publicly criticized Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz for referring to Warren as “Sacagawea.” Warren, who’s exploring a bid for president, took a DNA test to try to back up her claim she was part Cherokee and Delaware Indian – an issue that’s been in the political spotlight since Warren ran for the Senate in 2012.
In a January 8 interview on CNN’s “New Day,” Haaland said she reached out to Gaetz to educate him on why the term was offensive. “I think the last thing that Mr. Gaetz should be doing is using native women’s names as racial slurs. That doesn’t solve anything,” she said. (Gaetz responded to Haaland on Twitter, saying he’s open to meeting with new colleagues but also pointed to Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s vulgar comment about Trump, when she called for his impeachment.)
Haaland also plans to focus heavily on the disproportionate amount of violence that indigenous women face. Education and environmental issues are other high priorities that Haaland wants to tackle while in Congress.
On the morning of her swearing-in, Haaland opened up her office to greet friends, family and visitors from New Mexico. The space soon morphed into a lively mosaic of bolo ties, cowboy hats, and tribal patterns.
The room quieted as her 83-year-old mother, Mary Toya, was wheeled in. Haaland pushed her into her office and started pointing to the few pieces of décor she had on her shelves – framed black-and-white photos of her parents and grandparents and a kachina doll from her mother.
Toya reached for her daughter’s hand as she surveyed the wall and tears welled in her eyes.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said.
This story has been updated.
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