A report from the Center for American Women and Politics states that, in 2020, 18 Native American women—nine Democrats and nine Republicans—will have run as congressional candidates. This is the largest number of Native American women who have run—overall and in both parties—in a single election cycle. Some of these candidates were defeated in the primaries, but even so it’s still been a trailblazing year for Indigenous representation in a space that pays too little attention to issues impacting Indigenous communities, especially during COVID-19.
This is particularly noteworthy considering that there were no Indigenous women in Congress before 2018. The two Indigenous women who made history when they were elected to Congress two years ago, New Mexico’s Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Kansas’s Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), are both running for a second term this year. In addition to these two incumbents, a handful of additional Indigenous women are running for national office. Even on the state level, there has been a notable presence of Indigenous women. Stephanie Byers, who is Chickasaw, is a Democrat running for election to the Kansas House of Representatives to represent District 86; should she be elected, Byers would be the first openly transgender woman in the state’s legislature. Christina Haswood, who is Diné, is also running for election to the Kansas House of Representatives, to represent District 10; at 26, she would be the state’s youngest sitting legislator.
To recognize and celebrate the diversity of Indigenous voices running in this election, Vogue asked now veteran Haaland to converse with newcomer Zunker in an exclusive new conversation. Zunker is a first-time candidate for the U.S. House in a critical state: She is hoping to represent Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District. (She’s also a member of the state’s Wausau School District school board.) She hopes to bring Indigenous representation to Wisconsin, which has historically been a swing state but leaned Republican and elected Trump in 2016. “There are 11 federally recognized tribes here in Wisconsin, and the majority of them are in this large congressional district,” Zunker tells Vogue. “Representation matters.”
The two candidates discussed what policies they would focus on if elected, how they would address climate change, and what still needs to be done for Indigenous people in this country.
Congresswoman Haaland, what did it mean to you becoming one of the first Native women elected to Congress? And Tricia, how did it feel seeing this momentous occasion take place?
Deb Haaland: It is a huge responsibility to be one of the firsts, and at the same time, it’s an honor. I realize that young girls look up to me, so I have a responsibility to be a role model. Children now will never know what it’s like to not have a Native American woman in Congress. My advice to Tricia is to persevere. In 2018, when I first ran for Congress, a lot of people said, “She’ll never be able to raise the money, she’ll never win.” I didn’t listen to any of them. I knew I could win. I’d also tell Tricia that she can win!
Tricia Zunker: Seeing Deb and Sharice [Davids] make history as the first two Indigenous women elected to Congress was beyond inspiring. It was immensely powerful watching them be sworn in. Something hit me—I let out a deep exhale and thought, “There we are.” You don’t fully realize how much you weren’t represented until you finally see that you are. Not only did they make history, but their support has been incredible, generous, and genuine. They achieved this historic position and immediately turned around and held their hands back for others coming up behind them, including me.
It’s been a record-breaking year for the number of Native women running in the election. How does this bring you both hope for the future?
D.H.: It’s amazing to see so many Native American women stepping up and running to make a difference in their communities. My 2018 campaign slogan was “Congress has never heard a voice like mine.” In the two years since Sharice Davids and I have been in office, we’ve worked to encourage and support Native women candidates. Part of being the first means leaving the ladder down for those who come after us. That’s why this election I’ve committed to supporting Native Americans running for office, especially women. Representation matters, and it gives me a lot of hope for the future of our Indigenous communities.
T.Z.: Native women are leaders. We are leaders in our governments, in our communities, and in our households. When there is a Native voice at the table, the conversation changes. We are running for positions that our relatives weren’t allowed to occupy, and with that opportunity comes a duty to give back and help make things better for everyone. Increased Native candidates mean an increase in the Native vote. The Native vote is a powerful vote that can make all the difference this election, up and down the ballot.
What are the top policies you would implement should you be elected?
T.Z.: Before COVID-19 hit, there were different priorities: ensuring affordable, accessible health care and drastically lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Ensuring that the federal government meets its obligation as it relates to health care for Native Americans. We also have a farm crisis here in Wisconsin, and we need to take care of our small and midsize family farmers. There is a need for rural broadband access: We are depriving people of opportunity without the ability to get online, whether we are talking about students needing to do their schoolwork or teachers needing to be able to teach during virtual learning. But those conversations have gone to the sideline because of COVID-19. We now have over 215,000 Americans who are dead. This is preventable and avoidable. Donald Trump and his administration failed to listen to experts and failed to listen to scientists and data. I would address the needs of COVID-19, making sure that we have enough PPE [personal protective equipment] and testing. We know how critical testing is to halting the spread of this virus. Making sure we have hazard pay for our essential workers, making sure that our small businesses and family farmers stay afloat during this time, and making sure that unemployment benefits are extended for workers who have lost their jobs.
D.H.: I know that by the time January 21, 2021, gets here, and Joe Biden is inaugurated, he’s going to move forward immediately with his COVID-19 plan. Assuming that will take place, the three big issues that I’d really love to work on in my second term would be, one, universal childcare. We have a bill that we’ve introduced, several actually, for childcare. I think that’s the single most helpful thing to the largest number of people in this country, and it would help our economy tremendously. I will continue to work on climate change and renewable energy. A 30-by-30 resolution to save nature, for example, is something that Vice President Biden has embraced, so we’ll move forward with that. And then missing and murdered Indigenous women—we were able to get two bills past the finish line just last week. That’s been an issue that’s been happening for centuries and centuries.
T.Z.: I just want to say thank you to Congresswoman Haaland for her work on the missing and murdered Indigenous women bill. It seems like it’s just far too often we see yet another girl or woman who has disappeared. This even hit my tribe earlier this year, with the murder of Kozee Decorah, a 22-year-old mother of three very young children, who was found in Nebraska. It’s horrific.
You both touch on environmental issues, which are innate to Indigenous culture as a whole. What would you do specifically to address climate change?
D.H.: Preserving 30% of our land and waters by 2030, that is a really great first step. I’d love to concentrate on that now. Vice President Biden will have his priorities and will choose who is in charge of the relevant departments, but I have to believe that we’ll be in much better hands than all of the extractive-industry lobbyists who are running those departments right now. The gutting of the EPA is wreaking havoc on our animals, species, water, land, and air. It’s not surprising that many of the communities who are suffering the most from COVID-19 are the ones who suffer from the greatest pollution. We must stop climate change as much as we can, repair the damage that’s been done, and also move as much as we can toward renewable energy.
T.Z.: I am in full agreement with everything Congresswoman Haaland said. This is an extremely large district, one-third of the state of Wisconsin, and there are different concerns. I’m committed to ensuring that we have clean air and clean water for generations to come. This is something that, as Indigenous people, we look at through a different lens. We have too many decision-makers who make a decision based on the here and now without thinking about our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Sulfide mining tears up parts of the 7th Congressional District, and we know there’s no such thing as safe sulfide mining. There are even a lot of Republicans that don’t want to see the land near them mined because of the risks. When my opponent [Tom Tiffany] was in the state senate here, he authored bills that made it so easy for the mining companies to come in and destroy our lands. I support a moratorium on CAFOS [concentrated animal feeding operations], which pollute the air and water. In the northern part of the district, there is a proposed new Line 5, the Enbridge Pipeline. I stand with the Bad River tribe because they weren’t consulted at the start, and Line 5 would very likely affect their culturally significant rice beds.
Native communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. What still needs to be done to help Indigenous people in this country?
D.H.: Here in New Mexico, Native Americans are about 11% of the population, and they were over 50% of the COVID cases. There’s several reasons for that. A lot of the rural Native communities don’t have running water, or their water is polluted. On the Navajo Nation, there’s thousands of unreclaimed mines that seep into the groundwater and pollute people’s water. Right now, there’s a big methane cloud hovering over the northwest corner of the state, right above the Navajo Nation, so it’s not a surprise that a lot of people suffer from underlying health conditions. When they’re hit with a respiratory virus, it makes that so much worse. Elizabeth Warren and I are in the midst of proposing and introducing a legislative package called the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act that will increase appropriations.
We fought for $20 billion for tribes, and during the first stimulus package, the president came back with zero. He didn’t want to give any money to tribes at all. But we kept fighting for that, and we were able to get $8 billion. We need a president and an administration who values and understands the mandate of tribal consultation. We’ve had hearings in the past where the chairman of the Tohono O’odham tribe came to our committee and talked about the administration blasting apart, with dynamite, their sacred sites so that they could build a wall. The administration texted the chairman two hours ahead of time, saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to be there and set this dynamite off.’ That’s not tribal consultation. Tribes need to be listened to, they need to be heard, and they need to have a seat at the table.
T.Z.: I can speak from my experience as associate justice on the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court. Our court is a completely bare-bones operation. We had to let go of so many people. We did receive the funding from the government, but we had to wait a while, and it wasn’t enough to bring certain people back. We’ve also been impacted as citizens. There are certain benefits that some people rely on more than others that have been taken away because we no longer [financially] support this. What I’ve learned in meetings with the different tribes here in Wisconsin is that everybody has different priorities and concerns. That would be something I would bring to Congress and address.