‘They’re Gonna Rock It’: The First Day Native Women Served on Capitol Hill

‘They’re Gonna Rock It’: The First Day Native Women Served on Capitol Hill

‘They’re Gonna Rock It’: The First Day Native Women Served on Capitol Hill

One of the most joyous Native parties of the century was held in a DC Hyatt on Thursday.


On the first day of the 116th Congress, atop a ridge known as Capitol Hill but that was once the domain of the Piscataway people, two Native American women—Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo and first district of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation and third district of Kansas—stood on the floor of the House of Representatives. There have been nearly 11,000 members of Congress, but this would be the first time that Indigenous women walked these halls as legislators.

From my standing-room spot in the press gallery, I could see Haaland wearing a black Pueblo dress with turquoise sleeves and a red woven sash with a silver squash-blossom necklace and earrings—an outfit worn by Laguna Pueblo women for feast days. Trailed by three kids—her grandnephew and two Kiva sons (children adopted through Pueblo tradition), also wearing their Pueblo best—Haaland milled about, shook hands, and hugged her new colleagues. Like almost everyone else on the Democratic side of the aisle, she sought out Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker in waiting, before returning to her seat, grandnephew in her lap.

Then I spotted Davids, wearing a maroon blazer and black skirt with dangling beaded earrings—the kind my aunties sometimes make—her arrow-straight hair down to her waist. She conversed with a group of women gathered around Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), who wore a gold shawl cut from Kente cloth.

A gavel sounded twice and the members wound down their socializing and filed back to their seats. Davids and Haaland, sitting just a row apart on the far-left side of the hall, waved up to family members in the balcony. In the rows behind were the first two Muslim women elected to Congress: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, wearing a traditional Palestinian dress, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first member of Congress who wears a hijab.

As Indians we have lived amid genocide and tragedy for so long that survival itself becomes a victory. “Survivance,” Ojibwe critic Gerald Vizenor called it. We celebrate the small wins—graduations, weddings, holidays, anniversaries of sobriety—because we know what we survived to get here. With Haaland and Davids’s election, we see the potential for a new chapter for the first peoples of this continent.

Congress officially opened business with a vote to determine who would be the next speaker of the House. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, New York, the incoming Democratic Caucus Chair, quoted Psalm 30:5, “The Scripture says that weeping may endure during the long night, but joy will come in the morning.”

But then he announced, “Let me be clear: House Democrats are down with NDP,” referencing Naughty By Nature’s 1991 song “O.P.P.,” to applause and laughs from his colleagues. “Nancy D’Alessandro Pelosi, the once and future speaker of the United States House of Representatives, I proudly place her name in nomination.”

On the opposite side of the chamber the mostly old, mostly male, mostly white, mostly red-tie-wearing Republican representatives remained silent. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney and one of just 13 Republican women in the House (the Democrats now have 89), stood and lambasted the “devastating practice of sanctuary cities” and the “fraud of socialism” and stumped for “the wall” and Kevin McCarthy for speaker. Hurrahs from the men behind punctuated her oration.

With the press corps tweeting and snapping away, voting began, though the result was all-but assured: Pelosi, after eight years, would once again be speaker. Many Democrats, jazzed about their new 36-vote majority and eager to demonstrate unity behind Pelosi, added some color to their votes:

“Great American, Great Speaker of this House and the pride of the Italian-American community: Nancy Pelosi,” said one Congress member.

“Nancy ‘No Wall’ Pelosi!” said Veronica Escobar, the newly elected congresswoman from Texas.

“I’m down with Nancy D’Alessandro Pelosi,” said Gwen Moore of Milwaukee, whip of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Davids cast her vote without embellishment—she didn’t come out in favor of Pelosi until after the election. Not long after her, it was Haaland’s turn. Lifting her grandnephew from her lap, the representative-elect rose: “As one of the first two Native American women to stand on this floor, I vote for Nancy Pelosi.”

With 219 votes, one more than needed to be elected speaker, Pelosi prevailed, and invited all the children on the House floor to stand with her while she took the oath. “I now call the House to order on behalf of all of America’s children,” she said, Haaland’s grandnephew and kiva sons among the crowd surrounding her.

Before it was the rank-and-file’s turn to swear allegiance to the Constitution, Haaland and Davids turned to one another and shared a long embrace. The representative from New Mexico could be seen wiping her tears with Davids’s scarf.

In their new digs in the Longworth House Office Building, Haaland and Davids received constituents. With only four Native members of Congress, Haaland and Davids include Native Americans not from NM-01 or KS-03 in this category; they feel they have another community to represent as well.

Haaland’s office in Longworth 1237 is just down the hall from Pelosi in 1236. When I stopped by, Haaland’s family was taking a break from the formalities and photo-ops. They were exhausted, but smiling. “Watching my mom get sworn in as a congresswoman was intensely surreal,” Somah Haaland, the congresswoman’s daughter told me. “I’m just bursting with pride.”

I noticed a photo next to the front door that showed a group of Pueblo dancers posing beside a railroad car in Winslow, Arizona, where Haaland’s grandparents worked the railroad station on the border of the Navajo reservation. Beside it was a New Mexico flag with the Zia symbol altered to include a windmill. It read: “100% Renewable for New Mexico!”

Haaland, who represents a deep-blue district, ran a progressive campaign, supporting Medicare for all, debt-free college, gun reform, and a woman’s right to choose. She was one of the first members to endorse Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution to form a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, which would tackle the climate crisis through a jobs-and-infrastructure package. In office, she plans to address the ghastly trend of disappearances and murders of Indigenous women and girls, to advocate for adequate funding for Indian Country, and to protect the environment.

These positions are part of a career of activism, during which Haaland registered Native Americans to vote and stood with tribes and environmentalists against fracking in her ancestral Chaco Canyon.

Davids’s reception three floors above in Longworth 1541 was a low-key affair. In her office, she told Indian Country Today, “Congresswoman elect Deb Haaland and I are going through this amazing journey as the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, and I can’t express the level of pride I feel. I’m looking forward to getting to work and making sure that Native people are being considered when we’re creating legislation and policy.”

Davids, who defeated the Republican incumbent, Kevin Yoder, in a suburban Kansas City district, ran a more moderate campaign than Haaland. She’s a member of the New Democratic Coalition, a group affiliated with former President Bill Clinton that supports a balanced budget and describes itself as pro-growth.

Her priorities are the party’s current bread and butter: health care and voting rights, and Davids has expressed interest in working with Republicans to reduce the price of prescription drugs.

The representative’s personal politics, though, seem to be more progressive than her public positioning. After a two-bout career as a mixed-martial-arts fighter (in which she went 1-1), Davids went on to lead the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, one of the most impoverished areas in the nation. There, she helped develop, among other things a youth-focused entrepreneurial program and a worker-owned enterprise. She left Pine Ridge not long before the Standing Rock movement to become a White House Fellow. In 2017, before announcing her candidacy, she was arrested with DREAMers on Capitol Hill as part of the campaign to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children. Her personal Instagram account links to Haymarket Books titles on black liberation.

She was raised by a single mom who spent 20 years in the Army and is one of only 10 LGBTQ members of Congress. After the primary, a GOP official in Kansas described her as a “radical socialist kick-boxing lesbian Indian” who would be “sent back packing to the reservation.” He was fired for the comment.

With the rise of gaming revenues—totaling $31.2 billion in 2016—and the emergence of Indigenous-led social movements most notably at Standing Rock, Indian Country has proven that it has the two ingredients it takes to win political campaigns: money and organizing power. And with the election of Haaland and Davids, Indigenous peoples have arrived, quite literally, in the halls of power.

Now their task changes; they will need to navigate intra-party conflicts on which they might split. They will have to build relationships with funders and the press and contend with big money. As the only two Native Americans in the Democratic caucus, they will be called upon to advocate for their people—in appropriations, but also in issue-specific education of their colleagues. This could begin immediately as the government shutdown disproportionately impacts essential social services on Indian reservations. At the same time, they will be accountable to their constituents—the vast majority of whom are non-Native. They will have to work their way up the ladder of seniority, log a few legislative victories, and win an election every two years.

But Native women involved in Beltway politics told me that Haaland and Davids are up to the task. “I have full confidence in both of them that they’re going to ace it,” Jodi Archambault-Gillette, former adviser to President Barack Obama and a Standing Rock Sioux citizen assured me.

“They’re gonna rock it,” said Tara Houska of the Couchiching First Nation, an adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders.

But before the hard slog of governing, they’d earned a night to celebrate with their people.

One of the most joyous Native parties of the century was held in the basement of the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency. Indigenous peoples flew in from across the country to attend the celebration, sponsored by 31 tribes and Native organizations. Many of the men had long braids and thick buns, and women were adorned in their finest traditional jewelry—more than a few sporting dresses emblazoned with the bold geometric designs of Northern Cheyenne and Crow fashion-designer Bethany Yellowtail.

Wilfred Herrera Jr., governor of the Pueblo of Laguna, rendered an opening prayer. A drum group from the Ho-Chunk Nation sang an honoring for the American flag, members of Congress, and veterans. And Joy Harjo, the renowned Muscogee Creek author, recited one of her poems: “Bless the mouths lips and speech of this land for even the land is a lover, a singer of poetry. Bless the arms and hands of this land, for they remake and restore.”

Representatives Tom Cole, who is Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, who is Cherokee—both Republicans from Oklahoma—delivered brief remarks, welcoming their colleagues from across the aisle. Representative Jeffries then took the stage to remind everyone that “Brooklyn is always in the house.” Congresswoman Moore of Wisconsin stopped by and made her attempt to greet everyone in Ho-Chunk, a language, she noted, that has fewer than 200 remaining fluent speakers.

When it was Davids and Haaaland’s turn, they were brief, acknowledging family, friends, and supporters in the crowd—mostly tribal leaders and volunteers. They stood beside each other as they spoke, and when they finished, they held each other’s hands aloft like prizefighters, a black and red Native-made star quilt behind framing them. Then the pair hustled back to the Capitol, where they voted for a bill that would re-open the federal government.

At the end of the night, emcee Chance Rush, Hidatsa from North Dakota, called all the Native American women elected officials in attendance—14 in total—to the front. This year 53 Native women ran for office across the country, according to data compiled by Mark Trahant, editor at Indian Country Today. Haaland and Davids might have been elected to the highest office of this cohort, but they are only part of the sea change reshaping Indigenous and national politics.

“As a mother, I am so proud that our daughters will see themselves represented,” Nikki Pitre, a Couer d’Alene tribal member and the associate director for the Center of Native American Youth, told me.

The Ho-Chunk Nation performed a Helushka-honoring song for the women. The crowd rose to recognize them, and a few attendees gathered around the drum. Women bounced to the rhythm, and two Ho-Chunk men in headdresses—one of which stretched from the crown of his head to the floor—danced alongside two Ho-Chunk women wearing traditional appliquéd dresses.

On the way out, women from Laguna, including Ann Barudin, a Haaland volunteer and the mother of one of my friends from college, passed out homemade Pueblo cookies—the oven-baked ones they serve on feast days. A small group of Native children played a game under a table in the hallway outside. The sight almost moved me to tears. In a nation stolen from our ancestors, the vast majority of these kids’ lives will be lived in a world where Native American women serve in Congress.

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