Capitol Hill is a place where I attend hearings, interview representatives and senators, and report stories frequently. This morning I realized how difficult it was and still is to navigate Capitol Hill as a female Native journalist. Particularly because of my “stereotypical” Native look: brown skin, long-dark hair, and high cheekbones.
I walked into the Rayburn House Office Building, one of the handful of congressional buildings on Capitol Hill, off Independence Avenue. It is across the street from the Capitol.
As I walked up to the glass doors, my mind ran through how I was going to get through security smoothly with my belongings: putting my phone in my tote, making sure my jacket pockets were empty, and thinking how to fit my tumbler of hot tea into my tote.
I grabbed my stuff and recited in my head, “Room 2164. Room 2164. Room 2164.” My mind scrambled for the floor and I had to decide within a few seconds how to find Room 2164 without showing hesitation on my face.
Mind you, through the entire process I am reminding myself to be confident and act like I belong here. Usually, my preparation to report from Capitol Hill starts the night before. As us millennials say, “I’m my own hype woman.”
Why do I have to hype myself up? Because as a female Native journalist reporting on Capitol Hill, I have to show and believe deep down that I belong.
I have to show that even within the marble walls of these congressional buildings (where maybe 7 out of 10 faces I pass in the halls are white) that I belong.
I faintly recall my first time walking in Rayburn. Very little windows, of course. Few signs. I found the restroom after I’d been walking forever.
White faces, white walls, white floors. And everyone is dressed to fit in: suit, dress shirt, tie, shined shoes, pencil skirt, a nice necklace, heels. Even Native people dress the part. (You can tell when someone is a “D.C. Native.” Ha. I didn’t know it was a thing until a few months ago … but it is.)
The formality, whiteness, and colonial architecture were so odd to me. I felt out of place.
Now almost a year and half of reporting in Washington, there are only a few places I feel comfortable with my identity. The one place I feel at home on Capitol Hill is in Dirksen 628, the room where the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs holds their business meetings and oversight hearings.
Before I even enter the room, I spot Native people walking toward it. Sometimes we even ride the elevator together and chit chat.
I feel at ease in this room where woven rugs and paintings hang on the wall and there’s a Native person sitting in every other seat and behind congressional members. I see familiar faces from receptions, meetings, previous stories, or emails. Sometimes witnesses providing testimony are dressed in their regalia or traditional clothing.
It feels like home away from home. That room is a space that can easily be navigated by a Native journalist. I’m not judged, I’m not questioned, and I’m not flagged.
It’s even better than regular oversight hearings because congressional members do not ask stereotypical Indian questions ... but that’s another column.
I was reminded of these experiences as a Native journalist in Washington this morning at an oversight hearing. The hearing was for “hard-to-count” areas of the Census.
Here is what happened today: typically there is a press table in these hearing rooms where journalists can take out their laptops and write. Today when I pulled out a chair at the end of the press table in Rayburn, one white female journalist shot up a look. I instantly felt she didn’t want me there … so I sat at the end of the row in the audience. (There were better photo opportunities in this seat anyways.)
After this, I attached my phone adapter to my tripod to get a few video clips of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, in the front row. A white woman came to me and whispered they typically don’t allow people to film because the hearing is being recorded. I told her I’m not recording the entire hearing. I just needed a few video clips and some photos. She said okay and walked off.
Approximately 20 minutes later after I put my tripod away, she pulled up a chair (the same chair I almost sat in at the press table) to sit right next to me. I thought this was odd and a little microaggressive, especially because there were plenty of seats in the audience. There were even a couple of seats on the other side of me, too.
I kept working and tried to brush it off. I had a job to do. And you’re supposed to have thick skin in Washington, right?
I also reminded myself I belong in this space — along with the three other Native people (who I saw) in the room.
That’s what makes the job a bit easier and it makes being in D.C., a place far from my homelands, worthwhile. Knowing that you’re not alone and there are others fighting a similar fight: fighting for Indian Country.
Of course, you learn to navigate colonial spaces over time, speak up, and say enough is enough.
I walk taller and with more confidence now than I did in August of 2018 when I started at Indian Country Today.
I continue to prepare more for stories happening on the Hill. And overall, I feel like I do have thicker skin and continue to learn to embrace the stings of colonialism on the Hill and in the surrounding brick buildings.
I also want to point out that allies make a difference. In particular, one ally has made a difference in my experience here.
Last June, I was covering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the White House and the Canadian Embassy.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s public relations specialist at the embassy told the media that only seven questions would be allowed, along with one follow-up question. Six questions went to Canadian media and only one question went to international media, which meant the U.S. (I tried to tell them that Indigneous media doesn’t count. The public relations specialist sort of laughed but it didn’t convince him.)
This Canadian press person told U.S. media that we had to collectively decide what one question and one follow-up we wanted to ask. In this group of six men, I was the only woman. They wanted to ask a trade question and I wanted to ask about the recent expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The guys seemed like they didn’t want to compromise, but one gentleman could and tried.
We spoke and worked with the Canadian media on their questions that would answer everyone’s concerns, and I, as Indigenous media, asked about the pipeline. My follow-up question went to a Latino guy who wanted to ask about Mexico’s trade deal.
It all worked out in the end.
Later I found out the guy who helped was Canadian. He had been working for Bloomberg for a month. We talked in the elevator about how Canada is pretty well aware of Indigenous affairs — at least better than the U.S. for that matter. (Let’s be honest, there’s improvement to be made on both sides.)
I thanked him, and we went our separate ways.
Another woman that day befriend me in the West Wing of the White House. She shared her ways of moving through and surviving in the West Wing. She said to me make sure I bring my own snacks, water, and Keurig pods.
Washington can make a Native journalist feel small and unimportant. That’s why probably why people constantly describe it as a “transient city.” It eats and spits you out. Natives I saw a year ago aren’t here now.
But then I look down at my beaded lanyard while holding my press pass and look at my turquoise ring. I reaffirm myself to take it day by day. As a colleague, who was inspired by James Baldwin, told me, “Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you have to do is put it on your head.”
I deserve to walk into these marble buildings knowing I have important questions to ask. And as a female Native journalist, I deserve to sit at the press table feeling and knowing that I belong.