At Last, We May Get Our First Native American Woman In Congress

Deb Haaland has been helping New Mexico Democrats win races for 20 years. Now she’s running for a U.S. House seat.

Deb Haaland wishes people could just ignore President Donald Trump.

“Every time he says something stupid, it gets on the front page,” said Haaland. “We need to be talking about climate change. We need to be talking about oil companies wanting to lease land, like my ancestral homeland in Chaco Canyon, so they can frack there.”

If she gets her way, Haaland, 57, will soon have a powerful platform for keeping people focused on these issues. She’s running for Congress.

A single mom based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Haaland isn’t new to politics. She chaired the state’s Democratic Party from 2015 to 2017, and was the Native American vote director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012. That’s in addition to nearly two decades of volunteering on Democratic campaigns, and a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 2014.

But if she wins her race, it will be her first time in the House and the House’s first time having someone like her. An enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Haaland would be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.

“Crazy, right?” she said during a recent sit-down with HuffPost. “It’s 2018.”

She could end up sharing the historic distinction with Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who is also running for Congress this year. Davids, a Democrat, is taking on Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas).

Haaland said the last thing she could do in Congress is speak on behalf of any tribes. But she does understand what life is like for native people living on reservations or in rural areas, and said they deserve a voice at the table when policy issues are being debated. She noted, for example, that tribes didn’t get to weigh in at all on the GOP’s massive tax reform bill that became law late last year. It does nothing to address economic development disparities affecting Indian Country.

She also knows what it’s like to be poor. Haaland describes a childhood of used clothes, working at a bakery for $1.95 an hour and later in life being denied food stamps for Thanksgiving. She didn’t go to college until she was 28 because she didn’t know she was supposed to go. Neither of her parents, who were both in the military, went to college. Haaland ended up getting a degree in English, and later a law degree.

Most members of Congress can’t relate to people who grew up in poverty, she said, and Trump definitely can’t.

“When you’re insulated by private schools and money and everything you could ever dream of, it’s hard to put yourself in the position of an everyday American. He’s too selfish,” Haaland said. “He’s never had to struggle.”

Asked how her friends and family in tribal communities are feeling about Trump’s presidency, Haaland laughed.

“He is not liked,” she finally said.

It’s not surprising that the president would be unpopular in Indian Country. Never mind Trump’s plans to shrink national monuments that Native Americans consider sacred land, or his budget’s massive proposed cuts to job training programs that directly help Native Americans. He’s just flat-out insulting.