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On Monday, February 11, the National Congress of American Indians hosted its 17th annual State of Indian Nations address. The congressional response was a historic one, as Rep. Deb Haaland D-New Mexico, Laguna Pueblo — one of the two first Native American women elected to Congress — delivered the follow-up remarks.

Shortly before Haaland was due to deliver her remarks, she took a few minutes to speak with Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling.

Rep. Haaland spoke about the strength of Native women and women of color, the experiences she brought to her congressional seat as a 35th generation resident of New Mexico, and just how she was going to “Indigenize Congress.”

Vincent Schilling: As one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, I am talking to history. So, how does Deb Haaland intend to "Indigenize Congress?"

Rep. Deb Haaland: (Laughs) Right? Well, you probably saw the State of the Union. I took my blanket. It was funny because we all wanted to sit together because we were all the women wearing white. So we got text messages that said, ‘go to the floor at 6:15 and bring something to save your seat.’ I had the stack of blankets in my office and I just grabbed one.

Vincent Schilling: Yes I saw the buzz on social media.

Rep. Deb Haaland: Yes, a lot of people were watching. So, I just feel I want to do whatever I can do to help Indian Country identify with me and identify with Congress. It's their Congress too. It's not reserved for other folks. It belongs to all of us. I felt like it was important for me to just do that small thing, that would help people identify with us and help them to know that that house belongs to them as well.

Indian Country Today associate editor Vincent Schilling speaks with Rep. Deb Haaland in the green room prior to the State of Indian Nation's address in Washington D.C.'s Newseum Studios. (File Photo)

Indian Country Today associate editor Vincent Schilling speaks with Rep. Deb Haaland in the green room prior to the State of Indian Nation's address in Washington D.C.'s Newseum Studios. (File Photo)

Vincent Schilling: There is also Sharice Davids, as well as yourself doing things for Indian Country. I saw the social media posts where the young ladies were crying because they said they'd never had anyone represent them before. As much as we're watching you, you're taking us with you, that's a heck of a load on your shoulders.

Rep. Deb Haaland: Well, I mean look, we've been fighting for a long, time. It's not like I need to hold people's hands. Know what I'm saying? We've all been carrying our own weight and the weight of our communities. We've all been fighting hard. I stopped to think about the work and perseverance of my grandparents alone. Not to mention their grandparents. It's astounding to think that I'm standing here today because of them. Because they protected our land, protected our culture. But they also moved into the modern era too. Because they felt it was important to give their children opportunities. So, I don't take any of that lightly. In New Mexico, we couldn't vote until 1948. There are so many things that we've had to struggle with. When I take people with me, it's not like I'm dragging them along or its a heavy burden. They're ready, right?

Vincent Schilling: We are ready to ride that ride.

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Rep. Deb Haaland: Exactly, so let's do everything we can do to make our voices heard. One of the things I would like to do in Congress, when you talk about Indigenizing Congress, is that it is a lighthearted way of thinking about the first two Native women in Congress. But I'm the vice chair of the Natural Resources Committee. I'm a 35th generation New Mexican. Part of my job will be to convey to my colleagues just how important our land is to us. I don't want fracking in Chaco Canyon. I don't want us to shrink our public spaces in our national parks. I'm hoping I can convey to them what it feels like to have this very long bond with the land, and why it's important that we protect those spaces.

Vincent Schilling: What are you sharing at the State of Indian Nations?

Rep. Deb Haaland: I'm talking about our past and talking about our future. I'm talking about what I'm doing in Congress, I'm talking about women - Native women. In my own Pueblo, I could never run for office there. It's like the throwback from colonization that has kept so many Native women from being able to lead their communities. I couldn't run for office in my Pueblo. So I decided to run for Congress instead. 

Those of us who want to lead? We should lead. We should find ways to lead. I know everybody can't run for Congress, but we have Native women in our communities who can run for school boards, city councils, county commissions, and all of those grassroots foundation offices where decisions are being made about the future of our children and of our land. I want us all to start thinking. We have all these great ideas. We've been activists for a long, long time. If we get more people into office, those can be our decision-makers. That affects our communities.

Vincent Schilling: Have you noticed an influx of people that now say, "Deb has done it,' and now they feel empowered? Perhaps they are saying, 'I'm going to do it now?'

Rep. Deb Haaland: There are some women who ran this time around because they said I inspired them.

Vincent Schilling: Exciting stuff. So what's to continue for Deb Haaland?

Rep. Deb Haaland: I'm in a key position in the Armed Services Committee and the Natural Resources Committee. Those two things are good for my state, but I think they're also good for Indian Country. I just filed my first bill, the Antiquities Act which protects public lands. I'm going to keep doing things like that and work to help more Native women, women of color, just women period to get into office. Because I think that we would benefit from that. 

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