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US Congresswomen carry hopes of Native Americans

Maya Shwayder Washington
January 3, 2019

When the new US Congress is sworn in Thursday, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland will not only represent their districts, but also Native American women, one of the most marginalized groups in the US. Maya Shwayder reports.

Congress women Sharice Davids giving a speech
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Kansas City Star/J. Sleezer

Native Americans have had scant representation in Congress throughout US history, and they are one of the most marginalized groups in the country. At the federal level, there are only two representatives in the US House of Representatives who identify as indigenous, and none in the US Senate.

But as of Thursday, indigenous people in the US will have two new seats at the table in Congress: Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids made history when they became the first two Native American women elected, as part of what became known as the "pink wave" — the record number of women who won races during the 2018 midterm elections.

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"[On election night] I was very excited for them," said Ruth Buffalo, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, and herself a part of the pink wave. Buffalo will become the first Native American woman to be seated in the North Dakota state legislature, after winning her race as a Democrat against an incumbent Republican. "It's just exciting for everyone to have representation at that level of government."

"The US has been around for 200-plus years, and Native people were here before that, and we finally just got our first two women," said Samantha Nephew, a 29-year-old Native American activist and teacher from Buffalo, New York. Nephew is a member of the Seneca Nation, and has said that running for office herself one day "isn't off the table."

"To know that it's taken this long, and to know that there are women who look more like me, or my sisters, it's actually enlightening," said Nephew of Haaland's and Davids's election wins.

Native American Congresswoman Deb Haaland
Deb Haaland made history as one of two female Native Americans elected to Congress in 2018Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ralston

A history of violence

Native American women have experienced harsh forms of marginalization: For example, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 500 Native American women have been murdered or disappeared since 2010. And those are just the known cases.

"There's no real justice there," said Nephew. "It's easy to fall through the cracks when nobody is paying attention."

Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are a small ethnic and racial group who have historically been pushed off their land, enslaved, killed, and been at the wrong end of broken government treaties. To this day, because of their small numbers, said Nephew, all the tribes tend to get lumped together in terms of their political interests, or even overlooked entirely.

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It's a wonder, then, that any modern Native American people would choose to participate in the US government at all.

Nephew said that when she was out campaigning during the 2018 midterms, she did, in fact, run into other Native Americans who felt exactly this way: "They said they didn't want to vote, for all those reasons," she said. "But at the end of the day, as illegitimate as this government really is because of what happened to my people and my lineage, these policies and legislation affect me. I don't like the system, but that doesn't mean I don't have to live in it."

"Tribes have learned to work within the system," said Mark Carter, a staff attorney at the ACLU's racial justice program, and himself a member of the Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma. Carter is also good friends with Sharice Davids — the two were roommates in law school. "I think the tribes are more on the side of being able to use the law, and influence the government in a way that benefits the tribes."

Keep expectations reasonable

Native Americans protest against the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Canada (AFP/Getty Images/J. Redmond)
Environmental issues, often tied up with the rights of Native tribes to be sovereign on their land, are some of the most pressingImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Redmond

Haaland and Davids will have to strike a tricky balance between representing their constituencies in New Mexico and Kansas, and having to be a face for all Native American women across the country. They are just two out of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans and represent just two constituencies in the US. And the issues facing Native Americans range from environmental legal fights to issues of violence against women.

Carter cautioned that expectations of what Haaland and Davids would actually be able to accomplish should be kept in perspective. He said he knows that Davids is passionate about serving under-represented populations, but not to expect a sea change in Congress.

"Congress is a complex body with a lot of moving parts," he said. "It shouldn't just be seen as that there's going to be some sort of wave throughout Congress where every single indigenous issue is going to be put front and center, and passed that much more easily. But I do think that just having their voices there will have an impact."

He cited a case in 2013 when Congress voted by only a narrow margin to renew the Violence Against Women Act. "If they had been there at the time, the impact would be irreplaceable. You can't substitute for that."

"Growing up, there was no representation," said Buffalo. "I am an indigenous woman, I grew up on the reservation, and to see two women that have similar ties be elected into Congress, I think that's amazing."

Buffalo said she was also excited to see the doors they could open for future Native American politicians. "They're inspiring more people to step up and run for office," Buffalo said. "It's hope for the future that more women can be elected."

Nephew also said Haaland and Davids's mere presence in the halls of Congress was a huge step forward. "It's about having that perspective in Congress," she said. "They'll be able to keep us in mind. With women like that with a seat at the table, Native people in general will be included more."

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