Two American Indian Women Shatter the Glass Ceiling into Congress; Will be Sworn in Today

Published January 3, 2019

WASHINGTON   It took over two hundred years, so the celebration after the midterm elections across Indian Country was understandable when Deb Haaland, who turns 58-years-old on December 2, and Sharice Davids, 38, were the first two American Indian women elected to Congress; both are Democrats. Haaland, a tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, was elected to represent New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District and Davids, a tribal citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, was elected in the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas.

They will be sworn in today at the U.S. Capitol.

Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) will represent the 1st Congressional Distict in New Mexico. Photo by Levi Rickert

The two Native women were part of the wave that elected over 100 women to Congress, a record number of women than in any previous election.

The significance of the two women is important because they shattered the glass ceiling that has denied other Native women to serve in the House of Representatives. What is notable is they were elected in congressional districts that have small American Indian populations. While Haaland’s New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District has two pueblos, the Pueblo of Laguna and the Sandia Pueblo, the district is mostly in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the population of American Indians is only 3.5 percent. The district in Kansas Davids will represent has an even smaller base of Native voters with only a 1.3 percent in the suburbs of Kansas City.

With those numbers both Haaland and Davids understand they must represent a wide range of constituents in their districts.

“I want to tell everyone in this room, the single moms, the people drowning in student debt, and blacks, and Hispanics, and Native Americans and Asian communities who have been under attack…who deserve never to be erased, I see you, I’m listening, I love you. We fight together, and I will bring that fight to Congress,” said Haaland before her supporters on election night in Albuquerque.

Haaland wanted her supporters to know they were part of history when they voted to make her one of the first American Indian women elected to Congress.

“Seventy years ago, Native Americans right here in New Mexico could not vote. Can you believe that? Growing up in my mother’s house and as a 35th generation New Mexican, I never imagined a world to be represented by someone who looks just like me, she said.

With American Indians on stage and the Ho-Chunk Nation flag being held proudly, Davids entered the ballroom of the Embassy Suites in Olathe, Kansas one hour after major networks called the district in her favor to an electrified crowd. The crowd was made of mostly non-Native people and a large group representing the LGBT community. In addition to being among the first American Indian women in Congress, Davids will be the first lesbian to represent Kansas in Congress.

Congresswoman-Elect Sharice Davids on election night in Olathe, Kansas. Davids will represent the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas. Native News Online photograph by Levi Rickert

“My job is to now represent people of the 3rd district. I see every single person. It does not matter if you voted for me or my opponent. Everyone deserves to be represented,” Davids said during her acceptance speech at Embassy Suites in Olathe, Kansas on election night.

While both women understand the importance of representing the people who voted them into office, both understand the significance of being who they are as Native women. They understand, for the most part of history, American Indians have been underserved and have had few voices.

On January 3, 2019, Haaland and Davids will join Republicans U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (4th District-Oklahoma), a tribal citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, who has been Congress since 2003, and U.S. Rep. MarkWayne Mullin (2nd District-Oklahoma), who is a Cherokee Nation citizen, who will begin his fourth term when the 116th Congress convenes.

From the Pueblo to Congress

Born in Winslow, Arizona, Haaland was born into a military family, which moved around while she was young. Even so, she spent a lot of time of her childhood with relatives on the Pueblo of Laguna, where there was a lack of running water. It was there she learned the lesson about the value of water.

After high school, she spent a decade working in a bakery in Albuquerque, where she decorated cakes and ran the cash register. By 28, she decided she wanted to pursue a college degree. She went to the University of New Mexico where she graduated with an English degree.

As a single-mother, Haaland started a small business that sold salsa, where she gained a deep appreciation for the entrepreneurial spirit. She sold her salsa at state fairs and conventions.

She later obtained a law degree in American Indian law from the University of New Mexico. For almost two years, Haaland was the tribal administrator for the San Felipe Pueblo. During the 2012 presidential campaign, she served as the New Mexico’s vote director for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. By 2014, she ran for lieutenant governor of New Mexico, with Gary King at the top of the gubernatorial ticket. They lost, but she became chairperson of the New Mexico Democratic Party.

Haaland decided to run for Congress in the 1st Congressional District when U.S. Rep. Michelle Grisham chose to run for governor of New Mexico. Haaland won the Democratic Party’s nomination in June among a field of six.

Part of her candidate platform was her strong support for a national public infrastructure bill that creates millions of jobs and rebuilds America’s crumbling roads, parks, bridges, energy, schools, and technology infrastructure. Haaland feels the legislation for a national infrastructure should include massive investment in updating America’s energy grid to prepare us for 100 percent renewable energy, and millions of good union jobs that include living wages, full benefits, and fair scheduling.

Last month, Haaland spoke before an Indigenous Solidarity Rally rally in Washington, D.C.

Haaland believes infrastructure improvements should be especially targeted towards poor, black, and brown communities who have been historically neglected by the federal government.

“I think that if we had a renewable-energy revolution, not only in New Mexico’s District 1, but across the country, that would create thousands and thousands of good-paying, sustainable jobs. That’s, for me, the number one issue,” Haaland commented to “The Nation” in an interview earlier this year.

Haaland also thinks it is time for Congress to pass legislation that provides a federal job guarantee.

“A federal job guarantee needs to be explored, and could open the door to other bold ideas like a national childcare program to address our child care affordability crisis, universal pre-k to address the education gap, and public art to make our cities more vibrant and livable. As automation increases and climate change shifts our landscape, we need to think about how to keep America working,” says Haaland.

From public schools to Cornell University & now Congress

On election night, the first person she thanked was her mother. Davids and her two brothers were raised by her mother, Crystal Herriage, a single-working mother, who was in the military and then became a postal worker. Davids is the first person in her family to attend college.

Davids told her supporters at her victory celebration that she is a product of public education and would take to fight to protect public education to Congress.

Sharice Davids beat incumbent Congressman Kevin Yoder.

Soon after winning the primary election in August, Davids opponent U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder accused her of moving into the district so that she could run for Congress. He was quickly reminded that Davids grew up in the district where she attended Leavenworth High School. After high school, Davids attended Johnson Community College, Haskell Indian Nations University, the University of Kansas and obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

“It is not uncommon to be raised by a single parent. It is not uncommon to be first generation college student. It is not uncommon to work the entire time you go to college,” Davids told the crowd on election night as she talked with passion about public education and working her way through college. “What is uncommon, until now, is to have those voices truly elected to Congress.”

After obtaining her undergraduate degree, Davids got a law degree from Cornell Law School. From there, she lived on the the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where she helped develop economic opportunities, programs and initiatives at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.

During the last year of the Obama administration, Davids served as White House fellow, working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“My need qualified and experienced people in the federal government. My experience me qualified above others running,” Davids said during the primary to Tribal Business Journal.

Among the primary opponents, Davids felt her experience exceeded that of the others she ran against. Working at the White House provided her with a close-up view of policy matters that gave her an edge over her opponents, one of whom, Brent Welder, was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, who campaigned for him.

Davids believes small businesses are the lifeblood of America and need to be front of mind when creating economic policy.

Davids campaigned on maintaining a thriving economy. She is a strong proponent of small businesses that she considers are the lifeblood of a strong American economy

“If the last couple of years taught us anything, we must remember the motto of the state of Kansas ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera’ which means ‘To the Stars Through Difficulties.’ Let’s do this,” Davids said at the conclusion of her victory speech on election night.

After her victory speech, she spent another 15 minutes exiting the packed ballroom as she greeted supporters with Cheryl Lynn’s “To be Real” providing the background music.

Both women are for real and will fight for American Indians in Congress.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Tribal Business Journal‘s December 2018 issue.

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