Native Americans have been largely absent from the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. But that could soon change. Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, won the Democratic nomination for New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, and if predictions are correct, could become the first Native American woman in Congress.
“Tonight, we made history,” Haaland told supporters Tuesday. “Our win is a victory for working people, a victory for women, and a victory for Indian Country.”
Haaland, a graduate of the University of New Mexico’s law school, is no stranger to politics. A single mother, she was the first Native woman to chair the state’s Democratic Party (2015 to 2017). In 2012, she served as the state’s vote director during President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and is crediting with helping him win in New Mexico.
Observers are calling this week’s primary victory “historic.”
“What makes Haaland's primary win so important is that she is running in a district that's favorable to Democrats,” said Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, who has closely tracked the campaigns of dozens of Native Americans running for federal, state and local office across the country this year. “She is likely to rewrite history - either alone or with another Native woman.”
Climate change and renewable energy top Haaland’s political agenda. She is an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump’s environmental policy.
“The Trump administration is the worst nightmare to happen to the environment in decades,” she told VOA in February. “And then we have got the Bureau of Land Management working overtime to sell off leases to lands so that people can frack.”
She is also critical of Trump’s immigration policy and has promised to work to stop deportations and defend DREAMers, those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The federal government program, created in 2012 under Obama, allows children brought to this country illegally the temporary right to live, study and work in the U.S.
Native Americans in New Mexico, who account for 10% of the state’s population, did not get the right to vote until 1948.
Haaland has called for changes to federal tax policy to require the wealthy to pay what she calls their “fair share” in taxes and for stronger gun laws in the wake of a series of school shootings across the country, and in New Mexico. A gunman killed two students at Aztec High School in December 2017. In August that year, a 16-year old gunman killed two employees at a library in downtown Clovis.
The candidate says she is confident she would bring a “different perspective” to Washington.
“Diversity is a good thing to have when people are doing things and making decisions,” she said, adding that she would also work to promote the interests of the more than 570 tribes and nations across the United States.
“My grandparents were products of forced assimilation,” she said. “My dad was in the military. My mom worked in Indian education for 25 years. I have a good knowledge of the history of our country, which means that I have a firm grasp on how Natives were treated and why it’s important that the U.S. government live up to its trust responsibility to tribes.”