Could She Be the First Native American Congresswoman?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
After a career making sure others are heard, now she’s bringing her own voice to Washington.
By Nick Fouriezos
OZY first published this profile in September 2017. Haaland was elected to Congress in 2018 and on March 15, 2021, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become Secretary of the Interior — and the first Native American member of the Cabinet.
Deb Haaland seems most at ease when she’s pacing the hallways of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Striving to become the first native U.S. congresswoman in America, the 56-year-old’s eyes grow wide when she sees a traditional Pueblo kitchen, the kind she peeked into as a child, watching her mother and grandmother cook traditional dishes for hours on end: “See how industrious we used to be!”
The walls are dotted with pottery and placards. With a finger, Haaland traces a map of the 19 pueblos of New Mexico, westward from the ancient Taos of the north to the Laguna — her tribe, where, as past chairwoman for the development corporation board of directors, she helped manage what was then the state’s second-largest tribal gaming operations. The Pueblo were matriarchal: Clans and property were passed down through the women. Yet after the Spanish settlers came, that female-centric attitude changed. In the late ’90s, the Laguna would not allow women to run for tribal office — until Haaland helped a friend challenge the practice in tribal court, prompting a voter referendum that ended the gender ban.
It’s just one anecdote in a career filled with similar tales of Haaland helping raise others’ voices. That mindset is in her roots, from serving as the Obama 2012 campaign’s Native American vote director to traveling to Standing Rock last September to solicit support for the Lakota people’s fight against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Most recently, she served as the Democratic Party chair of New Mexico, crisscrossing the state to campaign for their slate of candidates. In that role, she not only helped Hillary Clinton reach an eight-point victory, but she also led the effort that flipped the New Mexico Statehouse from red to blue, making it one of only two states to switch in Democrats’ favor nationwide. “It was one of the more successful terms in decades,” notes Juan Sanchez, who served as Haaland’s vice chair. Her strongest trait? “More than anything, it’s her relatability,” he says. “No matter where people are coming from, Deb will reach out and connect with them.”
There’s not enough discussion on how debates around fracking and public lands affect tribal people like herself, Haaland says.
Born into a military family, she became a single mother at age 34, and sometimes relied on food stamps and government aid. She graduated from the University of New Mexico with an English degree in the ’90s, and went on to own the Pueblo Salsa company and sell antiques for Pattin Auctions. It was then that she got involved in grassroots activism, especially focused on increasing the number of Native Americans registered to vote. She returned to UNM in 2006 to earn her law degree. The next year, she graduated from Emerge New Mexico, a leadership program aimed at getting more Democratic women in office — launching her work on both Obama campaigns and then as the Democrats’ candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014.
Haaland aims to be a trendsetting politician, one rooted in Pueblo values of environmental stewardship, community mindset and dogged work ethic. Her track record of helping elect progressives shows her dependability, she says, and differentiates her from her fellow Democratic candidates, none of whom have run for statewide office. As congresswoman, she promises to oppose Trump’s attempts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program, fight back against the Ryan Zinke–led review of national monuments and promote policies that encourage renewable energies, such as solar. “It scares me that climate change is ruining our planet, that ice sheets are breaking off of Antarctica, that permafrost is melting in Alaska,” she says.
Yet at times Haaland struggles to articulate her vision. When asked what she stands for, she says she has “walked the walk” on environmental issues, without offering up much else (her spokesperson, Scott Forrester, points to a Medium page elucidating her views, adding: “If you’re looking for a candidate with fancy sound bites, you won’t find it with Haaland. Her actions and transparency demonstrate what she stands for”).
But she’ll need a clear vision as she vies for the 1st Congressional District nomination, facing a competitive primary after incumbent Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham left to run for governor. The state GOP declined to comment on the left-leaning district race, but Haaland’s main challenge is New Mexico law professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, who outraised her $200,000 to $152,000 in the first reporting period (Haaland notes her opponent had an extra month to fundraise after announcing her campaign earlier).
A national Bernie backlash might hurt longtime party operatives like Haaland — who may be especially vulnerable after a handful of Sanders supporters called for her ouster after she withdrew a state convention straw poll the day it was scheduled in March 2016 over concerns that folks might cheat. “There are a whole lot of people who were witness to it and won’t forget,” says Kathleen Burke, a national DNC convention delegate from Albuquerque, who believed it was part of an effort to undermine Sanders. Current state chair Richard Ellenberg says the straw poll had been publicized, and pulling it “was very unhelpful,” even if he felt the party did its best to remain neutral. “There are always people who are upset with whomever is leading,” Forrester says, before pointing to Haaland’s success in flipping the Statehouse: “I guess Richard has another definition of what helpful is.”
Meanwhile, Haaland draws attention to what she sees as more important concerns, such as a recent rally that saw hundreds gather in Albuquerque to support DACA immigrants. The Pueblo woman works the crowd, but doesn’t deliver a speech: It’s not her struggle today, she knows. And yet it’s another reminder of her own people’s fight to be recognized. There’s not enough discussion on how debates around fracking and public lands affect tribal people like herself, she says: “I don’t think they’re really talking about that.” Give her a year, though, and she may very well push that conversation forward — bringing to Washington a voice Capitol Hill has never heard.