There are at least four indigenous women running for Congress, three more are bidding for governors’ offices and another 31 are campaigning for seats in state legislatures — from both sides of the aisle.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Deb Haaland was a child, she would rise early on this state’s sun-beaten tribal land, sling a water jar around her waist and climb the mesa overlooking her pueblo.
It was as high as she ever thought she would go.
Now, she is among a historic number of Native American women running for elective office. None has ever served in Congress, but that could change this year if Haaland wins.
In all, there are at least four indigenous women running for Congress, three more are bidding for governors’ offices and another 31 are campaigning for seats in state legislatures — from both sides of the aisle.
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The numbers far outstrip past election cycles, longtime observers of Native politics say, and they are only partly driven by the liberal energy and #MeToo declarations that have flourished since President Donald Trump’s election.
More broadly, they are part of a decades-long shift in which Native communities, long marginalized by United States voting laws and skeptical of a government that stripped them of land and traditions, are moving into mainstream politics.
Montana has more than a dozen Native Americans running for the state House this year. Utah tribes are pushing the governor to make a seat for them in his Cabinet. Five Native people serve in the Minnesota Legislature, and four of them are women.
“American Indians have been invisible for so long, in so many sectors in society,” said Denise Juneau, who was among the first Native women in the country to be elected to a statewide executive position when she became the Montana schools superintendent in 2009. In that role, she developed an Indian history curriculum that is being replicated across the American West. “To be able to make inroads in the political world,” she said, “is huge.”
Many of these candidates are running on a liberal platform fueled by opposition to the Trump administration, as Haaland is. But others are Republicans who don’t fit that mold at all.
One is Andria Tupola, a Native Hawaiian lawmaker running for governor of Hawaii on a promise of tax cuts and small government. Another is Sharon Clahchischilliage, who was a co-chairwoman of Trump’s Native American coalition in 2016 and is running for re-election to the New Mexico House on a platform she calls “fighting the environmentalists.”
Clahchischilliage is a fierce advocate for a coal-fired power plant that employs many Navajo people. She is hoping Trump will halt the threatened closing of the plant. Keeping it open, she said, could save 1,600 jobs.
“What I love about Trump is that he understands,” she said. “He gets it. He is asking: What regulations need to change?”
Here in Albuquerque, Haaland, a Democrat, recently won 35 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field at the state party convention. She is a “strong contender” to win the June primary, said Joe Monahan, a longtime New Mexico political blogger. (Her district covers most of Albuquerque and has elected Democrats for a decade).
“We’re seeing a new generation of Native Americans who have seen more opportunity in education starting to knock down the doors in politics,” Monahan said. “And it’s not a loud movement, but it’s a steady movement.”
Haaland is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, a sovereign nation west of Albuquerque that is one the country’s 573 federally recognized tribes. A child of military veterans, she attended 13 public schools before graduating from high school, then started a salsa company and worked as a cake decorator before putting herself through college and law school on a mix of food stamps and student loans.
She entered politics in 2008 as a volunteer for Barack Obama, then spent years crisscrossing the state to register Native voters in some of the country’s most remote corners. In 2015, she became head of the state Democratic Party and helped flip the New Mexico House of Representatives back to Democratic control.
On the campaign trail, she frequently cites her heritage, and she makes the argument that many of the issues affecting Native communities — the ubiquity of low-wage jobs, violence against women — afflict other groups as well.
“I know what it’s like to get my health care from the Indian Health Service, and hold a sick child in the waiting room for three hours until you have a chance to see a doctor,” she said in an interview at her headquarters, a sparsely furnished office downtown splashed with political signs saying “Healthcare Not Warfare” and “¡Obámanos Nuevo México!”
Her priority in Congress, she said, would be to turn New Mexico into a solar energy powerhouse, a message with appeal in an impoverished state that has struggled to diversify an economy dependent on oil and gas.
She faces a field crowded with qualified candidates, including Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, a former law-school dean who has spent a career building social-justice programs.
The main criticism of Haaland is that she is concealing a lack of policy depth by focusing on the historic nature of her candidacy. “That as a single theme could leave her vulnerable,” Monahan said.
The United States did not grant Native people full citizenship and the right to vote in federal elections until 1924, and for years they were mostly absent from federal government, according to Mark Trahant, a professor at the University of North Dakota who writes extensively about Native Americans in politics.
That began to change in the late 1950s, when Washington instituted a policy known as termination, abolishing tribal governments and taking Indian land.
Facing existential threats, Native leaders began to exhort fellow Indians to vote and run for office. Men began to make elective inroads, and in recent years women have followed. In 2001, the coalition of tribes known as the National Congress of American Indians began a voting project that continues.
To be sure, Native Americans are just 2 percent of the population, and low voter turnout persists in many communities.
But that is changing in some corners, and American Indians have the potential to sway elections in states like Montana, where they make up 7 percent of the voting-age population; New Mexico, where they are more than 10 percent; and Alaska, where they are more than 17 percent.
Today there are two Native men in the U.S. House of Representatives, both Republicans from Oklahoma. (Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, has discussed having Native heritage but is not enrolled in a tribe.)
Among the Native women seeking office this year is Peggy Flanagan, a former director of a nonprofit organization who is running for lieutenant governor of Minnesota.
In an interview, Flanagan said that if she wins, she will oppose a proposed pipeline across historic Ojibwe land; send money meant to help Native people to tribes rather than county governments; and bring attention to the country’s many missing and murdered Native women.
Juneau, the Montana school superintendent, warned that the hardest part of winning an election as an Indian woman is proving that you can represent the entire state, not just its tribes.
“It’s not like, as a person of color or as an American Indian woman, you can walk into a room and say: ‘I’m qualified,’ and everybody looks at you like that,” she said. “You have to prove it. And we will — eventually.”