Deb Haaland hasn’t been in Washington long.
Yet her list of accomplishments is stunning. She’s had her first legislation become law, presided over the Congress, pushed for funding to stop the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and is now the chair or co-chair of several national committees.
She hasn’t even been in DC one hundred days yet.
Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, are the first Native women ever elected to the House. Haaland is Laguna Pueblo and Davids is Ho-Chunk.
“We hit the ground running,” said the New Mexico Democrat during an interview at the Capitol.
She reluctantly left the floor of the House for the interview while she was waiting to give a speech. Then her press secretary had just been informed that Haaland could save her place in line by placing an object on her chair to step out for a few minutes.
That stirs a great memory. That night Haaland used a Pendleton blanket to save her seat at the State of the Union. This simple act lit Native Twitter and Facebook on fire with praise for Haaland’s action, in “Indigenizing” Congress.
In between answers to questions. Haaland snacked on her small stash she always keeps handy. It’s critical to have fuel when running back and forth between the House, her office, meetings, speaking arrangements and her frequent trips to New Mexico.
Haaland stood in the Rayburn Reception Room. It’s ornately decorated with walnut paneling, carved molding, and “branches of the brass wall sconces are formed from laurel and oak branches, symbolizing victory and longevity, respectively.” The room was finished in 1942. Two decades later, in 1962, Native Americans had finally gained the right to vote in every state and 57 years after that Representatives, Haaland, and Davids entered that sanctuary as members of Congress.
Haaland could make history once again as Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, has announced that he will not be running for reelection in 2020. She hasn’t decided yet if she is going to run for that seat.
“I owe it to all of the hundred people who have called me to ask me to run to give it some serious thought and consideration,” Haaland said. “I owe it to them.” Then she added, “We’ve never had a woman U.S. senator in New Mexico.”
There is another career possibility: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has promised to remain in office until 2022. After that, who knows?
Busy on the hill
Haaland has sponsored three bills so far. One of them was part of the Public Lands package that was signed into law by President Donald Trump earlier this month. The bipartisan package created 273,000 acres of wilderness in New Mexico that were also part of the ANTIQUITIES Act. Haaland introduced this legislation to the house alongside Udall who introduced it to the Senate.
This packages created four new national monuments and is protecting millions of acres of land from energy extraction and a hundred miles of river. This was the most sweeping conservation legislation to pass in decades.
“To protect our national monuments and public lands,” she said.
Haaland has also introduced H.R. 1438 that would make an amendment to the Help America Vote Act of 2002 that would pave the way for same-day voter registration for federal elections. The state she represents, New Mexico, has already passed state laws to allow for same-day voter registration.
On March 28, she introduced H.R. 1900 that would establish business incubators through the Department of Interior that would promote economic development in Indian Country. The Native American Business Incubators Program Act would increase access to capital for investments and growth through three-year grants. This bill has bipartisan support.
Haaland hopes this bill will help end the cycle of poverty in Indian Country by providing support to small Native-owned businesses. This is something Haaland knows all about. As a single mother, Haaland started a salsa company to make extra money to support her family.
“We’ve made the most of every single minute of every single day,” she said. “I feel like we’ve just gotten a lot accomplished in a short amount of time.”
The one hundred day mark will hit next week.
Presiding over Congress
Haaland was also the first Native American woman to preside over the Congress. In this role, she chaired a House debate that was concerning voting rights and campaign finances.
“I won’t lie,” she said with a smile. “It was kind of fun.”
It was a new role for the freshman congressional member.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking,” Haaland said, “I’ll be honest.”
The biggest aspect of being chair is knowing the parliamentarian rules of Congress.
“You just have to be cognizant of all the activity happening on the floor,” she said. “It was a good experience.”
One that she was happy she did. “I feel like we all have to take risks sometimes and I feel like we all have to step out of our comfort zones,” Haaland said.
On being an icon in Indian Country
“I’m just going to make sure I’m doing what’s right,” Haaland said matter-of-factly.
Haaland is now a role model for Indian Country and she is used to that. She has always tried to set a good example for her daughter Somah Haaland. “I take that seriously,” she said. “I want young Native girls to think about their part in public service when they get older and I want people to get involved now.”
She is also grateful for the outpouring of support for her.
“There are so many Native people who are praying for me, who are wishing me well, who are sending good thoughts and prayers from their grandmothers’ at home,” she said, “we’re a prayerful people and I take that to heart.”
Haaland has also made impassioned speeches about the issues facing Native communities like missing and murdered Indigenous women. She is going to continue advocating for this issue and others that face Indian Country.
Haaland said: “People come to you for help and it’s wonderful to feel like you can help with anything.”
Pauly Denetclaw, Diné, is a fellow with Indian Country Today. She is a staff reporter for the Navajo Times. Her work is supported by a grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.