Deb Haaland is hoping to become one of the first Native women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Photo: Deb4Congress

'Two weeks away from making history': Tribes ready to welcome Native women to Congress

By Acee Agoyo

DENVER, Colorado -- Indian Country leaders and advocates continue to express optimism that not one but two Native women will soon be walking the halls of Congress.

As voters cast their ballots across the nation in less than two weeks, all eyes are on Sharice Davids, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Deb Haaland, who hails from the Pueblo of Laguna. Both are seeking seats in the House of Representatives, where a Native woman has never served in the history of the United States.

"We may end up with two Native American women in Congress," Jason Giles, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who serves as the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association told tribal leaders here on Thursday.

"That is historic," said Giles, speaking at the 75th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians.

Rep. Ben Luján (D-New Mexico) was even more upbeat. As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, his party's campaign arm, he predicted victories for Davids and Haaland in his address to NCAI on Thursday.

Davids, who is running in the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas, is "an incredible leader," Luján said. She served as a fellow in the White House and worked on economic development on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

"Sharice Davids will be a formidable force," Luján told tribal leaders.

Despite being a political newcomer, Davids has managed to out-poll and out-raise Kevin Yoder, the Republican incumbent who has represented the district for nearly a decade. She's also secured high-profile endorsements from former president Barack Obama and his vice president Joe Biden.

The hard work is paying off. In its latest update, the non-partisan Cook Political Report on Tuesday rated the district as "Lean Democratic," meaning Davids enjoys the advantage over Yoder though she must still prevail at the polls on November 6.

As for Haaland, who held an event here on Monday, she continues to look secure in her bid for New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, where voters have sent a Democrat to Capitol Hill in every election since 2009. Her chances are so strong that Cook Political Report considers her race "Solid Democratic."

"She’s an activist," Luján said of Haaland, who was the first Native woman to run New Mexico's Democratic party. "She knows how to roll up her sleeves."

Missing from NCAI's discussions this week was a third Native woman who is seeking a voice in Congress. Yvette Herrell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is also running in New Mexico, as a Republican in the 2nd Congressional District.

But even though voters in the district, which is home to several tribes, have elected Republicans in three out of the last four elections, Herrell is not seeing an easy path to victory. Cook Political Report still considers the race to be a "Republican Toss-Up," meaning it could go either way on election day.

The Democratic candidate is Xochitl Torres Small, whose first name means "flower" in Nahuatl, an indigenous language spoken in Mexico and Central America. An attorney and former U.S. Senate aide, she has described herself as a "Native New Mexican" but not as indigenous.

But with a victory for Haaland almost secure and one for Davids nearly in reach, tribal leaders remain hopeful about increasing the visibility of Native women in Washington, D.C. Throughout NCAI's 75th annual convention, they have been encouraging everyone to get out and vote on November 6.

"We are two weeks away from making history," said Aaron Payment, who serves as NCAI's vice president and as chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

NCAI's milestone convention is taking place in the same city where tribal leaders came together in 1944 to address threats to their sovereignty. In hope of carrying their voices to more ballot boxes across the nation, delegates on Tuesday, by unanimous request, directed the organization to look at the possibility of establishing a non-partisan political action committee that would support Native candidates of all political stripes.

"It will be looking for people who are ‘I’, for ‘Indian’," said Payment.

NCAI's convention wraps up on Friday.

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