The Ho-Chunk Nation Drum, with actor and activist Mark Ruffalo as a special guest, perform in honor of Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) at a reception in Washington, D.C., on January 3, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Native women make history with seats in new Congress

By Acee Agoyo

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It was a day, and night, to remember as Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland took their seats in the 116th Congress on Thursday.

Davids, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, are the first two Native women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. With crowds gathered in their respective offices on Capitol Hill, and with countless more watching online and on television from afar, they took their oaths in an afternoon ceremony that saw them join the new Democratic majority in the chamber.

Supporters in the Longworth House Office Building, where both members have been assigned, cheered, applauded and roared at every sight of Davids, who represents the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas, and Haaland, who represents New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, as both cast their first votes of the session. And it was a landmark moment for both as they helped Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California) become the first woman to secure a second term as the Speaker of the House, the highest leadership position in the legislative body.

Cheers soon turned to tears of joy and pride as Davids, with her Ho-Chunk mother holding the bible, took her individual oath following a mass swearing-in for the 434 members of the chamber. It was the same surge of emotions for Haaland, who wore a traditional Pueblo dress and was joined by her mother and family -- including four children from Laguna -- for the historic occasion.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: #NativeCongress: Ho-Chunk Nation Drum and Mark Ruffalo

"To have the first Native American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives while I served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional campaign committee is something very, very special," said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), who had predicted this exact moment of victory a little over two months ago.

Even though Davids and Haaland are brand new to the job, Luján, who grew up on the homelands of Nambé Pueblo in northern New Mexico and represents several tribes in the state's 3rd Congressional District, said they are already inspiring others. He shared news of an encounter that took place in the U.S. Capitol complex as a group of children met those first Native women on Thursday.

"They embraced them and the shed tears, because those little girls that saw Deb and Sharice in the halls of the Congress said: 'Now that you are there, I can be there too," Luján recalled at a reception held later in the evening in honor of the two trailblazers.

The reception, which took place at a hotel ballroom not far from the Capitol, was filled to capacity as Davids and Haaland made their initial appearances after being sworn in. There was only time for short speeches because both had to go back to the chamber to cast additional votes -- including one to pass an appropriations measure that will restore billions of dollars of funding to Indian Country and end the shutdown that has kept thousands of Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service employees on furlough and without pay for two weeks.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), left, and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) celebrate at a reception in their honor in Washington, D.C., on January 3, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

When they returned after doing their jobs, Davids and Haaland were eager to share the spotlight. Davids honored her mother, Crystal Herriage, who is a veteran of the U.S. Army, with a star quilt, and both she and Haaland stood with other Native women leaders as they were honored by the Ho-Chunk Nation drum with a song.

"It's not just my day, it's not just Deb's day, it belongs to all of us," Davids observed. "It belongs to all our tribal nations, to all the strong Native women who have done so much to help ensure that we are here -- and my mother is one of them."

"I guess I did some things right," quipped Herriage, who was adopted out of her tribal community and said she struggled "to find her own way" by reconnecting to her Ho-Chunk family and heritage. During the honor song for the Native women leaders, Haaland's elderly mother was wheeled to the stage to get close to the drum.

Davids and Haaland aren't the only Native Americans serving in the House during the 116th Congress. Rep. Tom Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, who hails from the Cherokee Nation, returned to their seats in Oklahoma's 4th and 2nd districts, respectively.

Both were also featured on the program for Thursday night's event. Cole, though, was unable to speak due to the ongoing business in the House but Mullin appeared to stress that Indian Country's needs -- including the struggle for self-determination and sovereignty -- are not partisan issues.

"When we speak together, we are stronger together," said Mullin, who shares a connection with Davids in that both were mixed martial arts fighters before they entered politics.

"If we only speak in one direction," Mullin added, alluding to party divisions that are at the root of the ongoing government shutdown, "we're going to lose the fight."

All four tribal citizens -- the most ever in the history of the U.S. Congress -- are back at work on Friday as additional legislative measures are being considered. But a day prior, their agendas were not in sync: Davids and Haaland voted in favor of H.R.21, the bill to reopen the government, while Cole and Mullin voted against it. Republicans in the Senate have said they don't plan on bringing up the measure in their chamber at all because President Donald Trump has indicated he won't sign it.

The Democratic caucus in the House has yet to announce publicly committee assignments for Davids and Haaland. Tribal leaders and advocates are hoping one, or possibly both, land a seat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, whose Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs handles Indian Country bills.

Tribal advocates are also looking for another Native voice on the House Committee on Appropriations, where Cole already serves and where a key subcommittee writes the bill that funds almost every tribal program. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), who has been a major player in preventing the Trump administration from gutting those programs, will be chairing that Interior subcommittee.

McCollum also has served as co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus but she will not seek re-election to that role. That leaves an opening for either Davids or Haaland to secure the seat.

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