After her primary victory in New Mexico on Tuesday, Deb Haaland is on a path to become the first Native American woman ever to serve in Congress — a step more than 200 years in the making.
“It’s not that we haven’t tried,” Haaland, a Democratic candidate and member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, told TIME. “It’s not that native women haven’t tried. Ada Deer tried. Kalyn Free tried. Denise Juneau tried a couple years ago.”
All three women lost their respective election bids — in Wisconsin in 1992, Oklahoma in 2004 and Montana in 2016.
There are currently only two Native American members of Congress, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole and Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin, both Republicans. Haaland’s primary victory in New Mexico’s solidly Democratic First Congressional District on Tuesday was praised by many as a historic step forward in a state where more than 10% of the population is Native American.
“When I was 11, my godmother, Ada Deer, became one of the first Native American women to win a Congressional primary. She narrowly lost the general,” Ben Wikler, Washington director of the liberal political group MoveOn.org, said in a tweet on Tuesday. “There’s still never been a Native American congresswoman. Tonight, Deb Haaland won her primary—and is on track to make history.”
Haaland, a single mother who put herself through college and law school, was a volunteer for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and became the head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party in 2015. She said she wants to restore funding that has been cut from American Indian programs. Members of Native American tribes have criticized cuts to child welfare, social services and education programs and argued that such cuts neglect U.S. trust responsibilities to federally recognized tribes.
“I’m not under the belief that I can represent any tribe or even my own tribe, but what I can do is make a seat at the table available to tribal leaders to speak from their own voice,” Haaland, 57, told TIME. “We have a government-to-government relationship with tribes, and they should have that opportunity to weigh in on important decisions that affect them.”
If elected in November, she plans to focus on environmental regulations to combat climate change, preserve public lands and fight for affordable health care.
“I’ve had to struggle like a lot of folks. I’m still paying for student loans. I’m a single mom. I know what it’s like to have to put back food at the checkout line because you don’t have enough money and those kinds of things. I think it’s important that we have different perspectives. We need more diversity in Congress,” she said. “I really think that we do need more people who know what it’s like to struggle.”
In November general election, she will face off against Republican candidate Janice Arnold-Jones, a former state representative
“I’m not exceptional. I didn’t grow up with privilege,” Haaland said. “I almost feel like my winning is a shoutout to democracy everywhere.”
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