Two women are vying to be the first Native American congresswomen

There's never been a Native American woman elected to federal office — yet these two are seeking to change that

Published February 23, 2018 6:32PM (EST)

Sharice Davids; Deb Haaland (
Sharice Davids; Deb Haaland (

There have been many political milestones for minorities in the United States in the past decade, still Americans have yet to see a Native American congresswoman.

That may soon change. After urging women and people of color to seek public office, Sharice Davids decided to take her own advice. Now she's running for Congress.

Davids, a 37-year-old attorney and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation tribe, hopes to be the first Native American woman elected to Congress, and hopes to win the Democratic primary in the fall. The Shawnee resident is vying for the seat in Kansas' third district currently held by Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican who has held the spot since 2011.

Davids served as a White House fellow during the final year of President Obama’s administration, where she "saw first-hand the immediate need for competent, thoughtful people to step up, take action, and get involved in government," as she explains in her campaign literature. Before her stint at the White House, Davids earned a law degree from Cornell Law School.

When asked about how she feels about potentially being the first Native American woman elected to Congress, Davids told Salon, "It's just disbelief, like, really? We have a lot of educated Native women who are active in politics. ... It feels like it's about time."

The daughter of a single mother Army veteran, Davids said she "knows the importance of hard work and service to country," in a statement.

Davids officially entered the race in Kansas on February 15, one day after the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Naturally, gun violence is on her mind, and she hopes to act on the issue. "Congress has done so little up to this point," she said, adding, "it's likely that I will get the opportunity to participate in some action action on gun safety" if elected.

Davids is also prepared to fight for comprehensive immigration reform and to save Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that gave limited rights to undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. as children and met certain requirements — a program the Trump Administration has decided to end.

If she were to win, Davids would be the nation's first female Native American member of Congress as well as Kansas' first openly gay representative. She could possibly share that first distinction with Debra Haaland, a Native American woman who is running for Congress in New Mexico as a Democrat. Haaland is running for a seat in New Mexico's First District.

Haaland is no stranger to politics. Before announcing her congressional bid, Haaland served as New Mexico's Democratic Party chair — the first Native American woman to chair a state party — and as the Native American vote director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. She also spent nearly two decades volunteering on Democratic campaigns, in addition to a failed gubernatorial campaign (she ran for lieutenant governor in 2014).

Haaland told Salon she is confident in her ability to win the race, and perhaps she should be. She already has a long list of endorsements, including the National Organization for Women PAC (NOW) and the Congressional Black Caucus. And while she is running for a safe Democratic seat, Haaland has fierce competition. Six Democrats are facing off in the primary June 5.

Despite nearly 20 years of political experience, Haaland suggests her work would only be just beginning if she becomes the first female Native American member of Congress. "If I'm the first, I'll be very grateful, and I will work hard to make sure that I'm not the last."

Haaland has already inspired several other young women to go into politics. After a television appearance, one mother messaged her, saying that her daughter was inspired watching her. Several weeks later, another mother reached out to say, "We were inspired to watch you on TV, and my daughter is now going to run for student body president."

In addition to empowering women, Haaland is committed to clean energy and natural resources, and disapproves of President Trump's approach to fossil fuels and climate change.

Haaland has been an ardent critic of Donald Trump ever since he became a presidential candidate, especially for his treatment of Native Americans. In 2016 she penned an op-ed, blasting the presidential candidate for his use of the name "Pocahontas" to mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "Trump doesn’t understand how or why Native folks choose to identify themselves or how tribes place individuals on their tribal rolls," Haaland wrote. "Ignorance is not an excuse." She also said that Trump's wealth does not excuse his language. "Any presidential candidate should be held to a high standard and being a billionaire doesn’t excuse you," she wrote. "As Americans we are all responsible for learning our collective history and being respectful toward one another."

A congressional victory by either Davids or Haaland would be historic. While eight Native American men ran for Congress in the November 2016 election, only two currently serve in the House of Representatives: Rep. Thomas Cole, R.-Okla., a member of the Chickasaw Nation; and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R.-Okla., a member of the Cherokee Nation.

While the 115th U.S. Congress has been called "the most diverse in history," critics contend it still does not accurately resemble America's increasingly diverse population. According to Pew Research Center analysis, "Congress as a whole remains disproportionately white when compared with the U.S. population." Given the flood of women running for political office this coming election, Capitol Hill may be even more representative come January.

By Shira Tarlo

MORE FROM Shira Tarlo