Rep. Debra A. Haaland (D-N.M.) spoke about her roots in political organizing and the unique set of challenges faced by indigenous communities at an Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum event Monday.
Moderated by Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, the event was hosted in tandem with Native American Heritage Month.
As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and a 35th generation New Mexican, Haaland was one of the first two Native American women elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
When asked about how she first became involved in politics, Haaland said that she was inspired to become a phone volunteer to improve voter turnout within her indigenous community and help others with the voter registration process.
“When I was organizing an Indian country we set up booths at the tribal Navajo Nation fairs and the Pueblo feast days,” she said. “We set up voter registration booths, and we had candidates come and speak to voters there.”
As she worked her way up into becoming a political organizer, she explained that she would set out to organize in Indian country, emphasizing the importance of meeting people on their terms.
“We went to their locations,” Haaland said. “We went to meet them on their turf, so to speak, so that we could learn more about those communities and also give them the information that they needed to be able to vote.”
She also credited Emerge New Mexico, an organization that provides political training programs for Democratic women who want to run for office. Haaland, who graduated from the program in 2007, said that Emerge New Mexico “has really done an amazing job in giving women candidates the courage and the confidence to get out there and run.”
Having been raised in a military family, Haaland also discussed how many Americans are unaware that Native Americans and Alaskan Natives serve in the military at five times the national average and have served in every war for the past 200 years. She also highlighted the delicate balance between needing to advocate policies that help service members while also being aware of the U.S.’s ever-growing military budget.
Haaland also serves as the Chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. She said the President Donald J. Trump’s administration has failed to consult with indigenous tribes when managing public lands and referenced mining and drilling in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, which are sacred cultural sites and wildlife habitats.
“If anyone has ever been to Bears Ears to hike in those areas and look and hike up to the cliff dwellings where ancient Pueblo homes are still visible there on the sides of the cliffs, you would see that it's no place for oil derricks for drilling,” she said. “This is a pristine area that, quite frankly, are where the bones of our Pueblo ancestors are buried. It’s hallowed ground.”
Reiterating the power of political organizing, Haaland emphasized her role as a legislator in getting people involved.
“Before we think about drafting a piece of legislation we need to get out there and make sure that we're asking the people, what do you think about this,” she said. “They deserve to feel like they can trust you, they deserve to feel like what you're saying is truthful and you're transparent.”