Aliyah Chavez and Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

President Joe Biden’s inauguration was a day where Indigenous children cheered in front of their TVs and Rep. Deb Haaland wore a ribbon skirt with red wrapped moccasins to a historic swearing-in ceremony.

That was the scene Wednesday as Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black person, South Asian and woman to hold the office, were sworn in.

Some Indigenous lawmakers attended the inauguration in person, while supporters across the nation viewed the events on screens. Native voters have been credited with helping the duo secure their win, particularly in key battleground states such as Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

In Phoenix, 8-year-old Shikeyah, 5-year-old Lakai and 3-year-old Nataani jumped up and down while watching the country’s new leadership take shape.

The Diné children have followed Biden and Harris closely after their parents, Ginger Sykes Torres, Diné, and Javier Torres, campaigned for the then-presidential hopefuls.

“I was personally motivated to do everything that I could to help turn the country around for my kids,” Torres said. She organized car and bike parades to get Native voters to the polls to vote for Biden.

Their children joined them for every step of campaigning, even coloring campaign flyers of their own. On Wednesday, they were enthusiastic, Torres said.

“My daughter tells us she wants to be president someday. And she says it with conviction,” Torres said. “She kind of now knows the steps of what to do to make that happen.”

Biden Inauguration announcements (Photo courtesy of Katie Fire Thunder)

In Bozeman, Montana, 20-year-old Katie Fire Thunder, Oglala Lakota, watched the inauguration from her home. She says it was an overwhelming sight.

Fire Thunder is a former intern for Harris’ presidential campaign and has met with Harris a handful of times. As part of her work on the campaign, she received an official inauguration announcement and was planning to travel to Washington, D.C., to see the events in person.

The Capitol attack two weeks ago stopped her.

“I was terrified and still am a bit scared,” Fire Thunder said. “We decided to stay home, which was tough but definitely for the best.”

Fire Thunder says she’s hopeful for the Biden-Harris administration, saying she believes Indigenous people will have a seat at the table.

“Seeing Deb Haaland being nominated for a Cabinet position, and how diverse all of the Cabinet is, is really inspiring,” Fire Thunder said. “Biden always talks about unity, and we can’t have unity without including Indigeous people in that conversation.”

In Washington state, Auburn City Council member Chris Stearns, Navajo, watched from his home, saying the inauguration filled him with joy.

“The emotions are hard to describe, because just now it felt like a massive weight was lifted from our shoulders,” Stearns said. “There’s a lot of hope in Indian Country today. But if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Indian Country is resilient.”

Stearns served as a national delegate last year, voting for Biden at the National Democratic Convention. He also received an official inauguration announcement.

“My hopes for the next four years are that the Biden-Harris administration reinvigorates the nation-to-nation relationship and fulfills the promises made to Indian Country. Rescinding the Keystone XL permit is a wonderful start, but there’s so much to do.”

At the Capitol, Indigenous members of Congress were present for the Inauguration. The ceremony took a little over two hours and it was a chilly day, the members noted.

Rep. Kai Kahele, Kanaka Maoli, tweeted “Let’s do this” along with a picture of hand-warmers and what appeared to be a snack (possibly spam musubi) wrapped in saran wrap to get him through.

Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw Nation, gave his best wishes in a statement to Biden and said he was happy to attend the ceremony. Cole noted that while the country is divided, he hopes Congress can set the example of what working together and reaching across party lines looks like.

“Although we live in extremely divided times and a highly polarized political environment, I am hopeful all Americans will choose to see Inauguration Day as an opportunity to unite and move ahead together toward healing,” Cole said.

Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, attended the ceremony too. She wore a “Native vote” mask.

It was unclear if Cherokee Republican Reps. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma were present at the event. On social media, Herrell shared that she has signed on to a letter from freshman members of the Republican Party congratulating Biden and pledging to work with the administration on key issues.

In her own statement, Haaland touched on the monumental challenges facing the country and its new president. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the Capitol riots that occurred just two weeks ago, she is confident Biden and Harris will rise to the occasion.

“Despite these previously unthinkable challenges, today represents a new era of hope, progress and courage for our nation. President Biden and Vice President Harris recognize the weight of the concurrent crises we collectively face and the diligence and ambition demanded of our nation’s response,” Haaland said. “I am confident that they will meet this moment.”

Some noted room for improvement, saying Indigenous people and communities were scarcely included in the programming of the event.

“I did feel like there was a missed opportunity to recognize Native people as part of this land … we saw recognition of the Latino community and the African American community in the actual ceremony,” Torres said. “I just really hope with some of our Native leaders that are coming to the forefront, in our next inauguration, Natives will play a larger part in future ceremonies.”

Rebecca Nagle, Cherokee, shared similar sentiments on Twitter.

“May one day the Presidential inauguration acknowledge the Piscataway people on whose land the ceremony takes place rather than erase every Indigenous Nations in our country with the settler theme song This Land is Your Land,” Nagle wrote. “We have a long way to go.”

Later this evening, Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, is scheduled to speak at the Clean Energy for America Inaugural Ball. In her welcoming remarks shared with Indian Country Today, Jordan recognized the power of Native vote that helped carry battleground states for Biden.

She also congratulated the new president and vice-president on their inauguration and thanked Biden for nominating Haaland for secretary of the Interior.

"Because leadership matters! Representation matters," Jordan is set to say. "And I’m glad we have a president who recognizes this as integral to our country’s movement for healing, empowerment, and justice — not only for humanity, but for our environment as well."

Wednesday’s virtual "Parade Across America" also featured Indigenous representation, including the Native American Women Warriors and TikTok star Nathan “DoggFace” Apodaca, Northern Arapaho. Native dancers also performed, and a Hawaii group delivered a traditional chant.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com.

Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com 

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*This story has been updated to reflect comments received from Paulette Jourdan