Deb Haaland – Photo courtesy of debforcongress.com
AIGC Alumnae Make Political Waves Across the Nation
By Kim Baca
In a nearly packed room at the center of many things Pueblo, more than a half dozen New Mexico’s tribal and Democratic leaders stood up spouting out positives about one of their own. Stumping for the first Native American female congressional candidate in New Mexico’s history who was poised to win, the leaders made their case why Deb Haaland was more than fit for the position.
“Deb has inspired people across the nation – she’s inspired young Native Americans, young women and young men … And none of us are surprised. We all know how hard she works,” said U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich during a GOTV or get out the vote rally at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for then-congressional candidate Deb Haaland in Albuquerque.
“We all should be grateful how she is running in this election and how soon she’ll be representing us all,” he said. “This is a very big deal.”
Since the October rally, the now U.S. Representative has been busy preparing for her next job at our nation’s capitol. After spending more than a year and a half knocking on doors or behind the wheel driving to events while on the campaign trail, Haaland hasn’t stopped yet – there’s too much to be done.
“I’m happy to have won my election and have an opportunity to serve my community,” says Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.
This year was a record year for Native American candidates running in state legislative, statewide or congressional races across America. More than 100 Native Americans ran in major races in 2018, with 69 of them Native women. At least five were AIGC alumnae, including Haaland. Other AIGC scholarship recipients who were political candidates include Jasha Lyons Echo-Hawk, Seminole-Creek/Pawnee/Omaha/Iowa, who made a bid for Oklahoma’s House of Representatives; Sharon Clahchischilliage, Navajo, who sought re-election in New Mexico’s House of Representatives; and Tatewin Means, Lakota, who made a bid for South Dakota’s attorney general. The list also includes Georgene Louis, Pueblo of Acoma, who will starting her sixth year or third term in New Mexico’s House of Representatives in January.
In speaking with a few of the candidates, the decision to run for office was a desire to not only serve their communities but educate the rest of the world about Native people and their sovereign rights. In other cases, it was to make changes where it was needed most – to help protect tribal interest for future generations through creating or changing laws.
Louis, a University of New Mexico law school graduate, remembers having to educate her colleagues about Native American issues continually while in school, which helped put place that seed to run for public office.
“We have kids in public schools, elders and Native people who receive and need health care – there are so many decisions that are made for Native Americans but we don’t always have a seat at the table,” said Louis, who represents an Albuquerque district that is predominately Hispanic.
Even in a state with 23 tribes, Louis still finds herself educating her New Mexico legislative colleagues, especially in committee hearings where requests for funding for tribes or tribal projects are under review. These discussions she said also still include confusion or questions where tribal casino revenues end up, tribal government status and similar issues.
Tatewin Means, who has several degrees, including a B.S. from Stanford, an M.A. from Oglala Lakota College and a law degree from the University of Minnesota, said it took her about a year to decide to run for South Dakota’s attorney general, which took some convincing by several different people. Means, who said she wasn’t a politician and hadn’t been active or even a member of the Democratic Party prior to her filing to run for office, ultimately decided to jump into the race in hopes of statewide criminal justice reform, especially to correct the disparities of indigenous people in the criminal justice system, including youth.
“I knew the odds were against me because of South Dakota’s dynamics, racial dynamics and history, and the political climate here. But I ultimately realized … if I’m apart of breaking down some of those barriers (in running for office) then I’m OK with that,” she says.
Fundraising was one of the biggest challenges for Means, like many candidates mentioned in this article. Even Haaland, a seasoned Democratic political organizer for more than 20 years and a former statewide Democratic Party chair, said fundraising was a challenge, though she garnered nationwide support both monetary and endorsements. It was her grassroots connection and their support that helped make an impact.
Despite the challenges, each has been motivated by their children, family or community and education has been one of the keys.
When Means was working with various statewide and federal partners while employed Oglala College, she noticed the strong value placed on the opinions of lawyers, which in part prompted her to go to law school. Louis said her goal was to help tribal people so that’s why she set her sights on obtaining advanced degree in law. And Haaland said having her JD has helped her with approach to a subject and think critically. All also thanked AIGC in aiding in their education.
Each also encouraged students to think about serving in public office.
“We want our elected officials to look more like the communities they serve,” says Haaland, who started off as a phone volunteer calling constituents to sway voters toward specific candidates. “I hope that more Native students will look at public service as they move through their education … When we have elected officials that look like the community they serve they’re going to be more adept at understanding what the issues are. If you live the struggle you know what other people are going though so when you get into public office you can be the voice for the people who look just like you.”
Kim Baca (Navajo/Santa Clara Pueblo) is a content specialist and writer based in Albuquerque, N.M.
Advice About Getting into Public Office - and Getting Over Barriers
“First, know how you are as an indigenous person, define that for yourself. Get connected to your people’s history and your people’s way of life and use that as your foundation of strength because when you’re rooted and connected to your identity and your culture and know who you are, then the Creator will always guide and protect you, and your path will illuminate itself. Do not to be discouraged when you encounter barriers and challenges. Those are meant to happen, too, and you’ll find your way through it and thein the end you’ll only be stronger for it.”
- Tatewin Means
“We need [Native] voices. We need their service. We need all the help that we can get, and we are, of course, stronger in numbers. We need their voices to erase some of the hate that is going on. And I think that once others see more Native people being involved they’ll see that we deserve a seat at the table, they’ll know that they can trust us and they can work with and for all of us. If you’re struggling, unfortunately, that’s a part of life but hopefully once they reach success they can help other people reduce those challenges so that we can make it easier for the next generation so they don’t have to struggle as much … There are resources out there and there are plenty of people out there to support them. Don’t be afraid to say you need help. If you keep working towards those goals even if you struggle it’s going to make you stronger.
- Georgene Louis