As the election nears, it is hard to ignore the dissonant reality of being a woman of color voter in America. We exist within a system that has historically not put our needs first, a system that has oppressed our rights and our voices for generations. It is easy to become discouraged and think—does my vote count? This disparity is precisely why I believe our participation in this system as voters, civilians, politicians, artists—is more important than ever. Not only do our votes count, but generations of women of color to come are counting on them.
I had the distinct honor of interviewing Rep. Deb Haaland of the 1st Congressional District of New Mexico, live on my Instagram. Rep. Haaland made history when she became one of the first two Native American women in Congress in 2018. I met Haaland for the first time during her 2018 campaign at a cafe in Santa Monica over cups of tea and vegan chocolate cake. We shared tears and laughter and talked about all of our hopes and dreams for our communities and our country. I was ecstatic to find out that Haaland walked up to the podium to my song “Fight For You” when she took her oath of office.
Haaland has been working tirelessly to protect voting rights and make sure underrepresented voices are heard. She is truly the embodiment of the power and resiliency of women of color. I greatly enjoyed chatting with her and hope you will take away the same inspiration that I did. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Raye Zaragoza: Can you speak about your efforts for protecting voting rights and your work to make sure that access to the ballot is protected, especially within Indigenous communities?
Rep. Deb Haaland: Absolutely. So HR-1, [which] we passed out of the House way last year, it is a huge package. The For The People Act, [which] expands voting rights, strengthens ethics rules and really just gets big dark money out of politics. Part of that package had HR-1438—that’s my same-day voter registration bill. I want—we want—to give people every opportunity to register and to vote. There are people in this country right now who are working three and four jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads, so we need to do everything we can. I felt that same-day voter registration would be something that would be very good. Also HR-4, The Voting Rights Advancement Act, I’m [an] original co-sponsor, and that restores the full strength of the landmark Voting Rights Act. When we were moving HR-1 through the house, it was the first time that I was able to sit in the speaker’s chair and John Lewis gave the closing argument on HR-1. I was standing in the speaker’s chair and he was right in front of me belting out his love of our country and why everybody needs access to the ballot box and you know, it is something I’ll never forget.
Zaragoza: Yes, and I know that if I’m not mistaken, when you were on the speaker’s chair, that was the first time a Native American woman has ever been at that chair and that’s historical. I’m such a fan of the work that you’ve done with this and I think it’s so important. I know elections where I’ve had people come up to me devastated because they didn’t even realize that they were not registered to vote, and then when they went to vote, they could not. Being able to register on the day that you vote is so incredibly important. And I wanted to ask you: What are some major issues on the ballot this year that you are very passionate about?
Haaland: Environmental justice, women’s reproductive rights, our Constitution for heaven’s sake, climate change, these are all things that are on the ballot. And by working to elect candidates who care about those things and will move our country forward in those directions, those things are all on the ballot. So you can bet that I am out there working every single day to make sure that people know there’s an election coming up. I have already ordered my absentee ballot online, and so encourage everyone if you haven’t figured out how you’re voting, put it in your calendar, make a schedule, [and] plan to vote so that you don’t miss it.
Zaragoza: Absolutely. Think ahead everybody! It is the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Many folks do not acknowledge that the suffrage movement was inspired by Indigenous women. I would love to hear you talk about why you feel it is so important to have female Indigenous voices in politics.
Haaland: Yes, well I think it’s important for every community to be represented. We deserve that. People of color deserve to be represented everywhere, which is why I am always encouraging people to run. Being one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, of course, I’m so proud. I am proud that my knowledge and my experience in Indian Country, just because of the way I was raised and the things I was taught by my grandparents and my parents, I can bring those to the table here. Additionally, I have worked very hard to make sure that tribal leaders have a say [and] that they have a seat at our table. We have invited tribal leaders from all over the country to testify right here on Capitol Hill because we need to make sure that their voice is heard on a plethora of issues. And as I mentioned, the environment is a great big one and so we want to make sure that they have a voice and all of those things moving forward.
Zaragoza: Yes, absolutely, and it really is amazing for me to hear you talk about representation and how important it is in politics, because as a singer-songwriter, my greatest goal with my music has always been to promote representation. Young children want to see themselves reflected back to them in media and in politics, and so I’m curious to hear if you felt reflected in politics when you were younger and maybe who your role models were.
Haaland: You know, I can’t say. I didn’t become real politically active until my late twenties. I voted [in] my first election was when I was 20 years old. My dad was a 30-year career Marine, he was a Republican all his life, and so I have to say, I was a little bit influenced by my parents. But as you get older, you realize your history and your place in the world and all of these things. I got started in politics because I just wanted more Indians to vote. So I just started volunteering and would walk into campaign offices of candidates I liked and ask for a list of Native Americans. I really just wanted more Native Americans to vote and that has essentially turned into me really focusing on the issues and being an activist and pushing those things forward.
Zaragoza:That’s amazing and that’s why we’re here, trying to get everyone out to vote! Your passion for community and how community brought you to politics and this desire to rally everyone together for the greater good is something I really appreciate and why I admire you so much.
Haaland: And Raye, I should just say, being raised in a Pueblo household, you know Pueblo Indians from time in memorial, their strength was their unity. It’s almost like Pueblo culture, unless everybody has something to eat, no one has any. You know what I’m saying? Every single person in the community mattered, so everybody worked hard. Everybody did it together because they didn’t want to leave anyone behind. We’re agriculturalists and if you know anything about agricultural traditions, it is people working together to grow things from the earth and sustain themselves and I feel very dedicated to that idea.
Zaragoza:Yes, that mentality is something that I know our country could always use more of and something that I hope we can continue to cultivate—this feeling that no one has ever left behind. I have a song called “Fight for You,” your walk up to the podium song, and the lyric is “If you fight for me, I’ll fight for you.” It’s this feeling that we’re all looking out for each other, I think that’s something we could always use more of. And so, bringing the conversation to COVID, what do you feel that people need to know about how COVID is affecting Native communities right now?
Haaland: Well, this pandemic has highlighted the disparities of communities of color. That’s the bottom line. And that’s why the rates for Native American, Hispanic Americans, Black Americans—all those communities are suffering higher rates of COVID, higher rates of hospitalizations, higher rates of everything because they suffer disparities. Disparities in health care, disparities in environmental protections, disparities in housing, right? A lot of those folks live in more crowded housing because it’s difficult to find affordable housing in the areas where they need affordable housing. So with respect to Native Americans, of course, the Indian Health Services is the predominant federal agency that is supposed to make sure that Native folks and communities have health care. It’s underfunded. They have been working so hard, the professionals at the IHS, they have been working their hearts out to protect Indian country. They can only do so much if they’re not fully funded, so it’s up to the U.S. government to make sure the IHS has what it needs to protect those communities. So, we have some legislation moving forward that we would like to get passed. We know that the federal government needs to live up to its trust responsibilities to Tribes.
Zaragoza: Yes, absolutely. I hope the IHS can get more funding, the funding that it needs. So bringing the conversation back to voting, what would you say to someone who does not vote because they feel that the government has historically not protected them or looked out for them in the past?
Haaland: Raye, I’ll just tell you something about me: I will never lose hope. I’ll never lose hope and not only that, but I have an obligation. My ancestors worked their hearts out because they had dreams of future generations moving their culture, their land, their traditions forward. That’s why they worked so hard. My ancestors worked hard and they gave me a place right now in 2020 to stand firm in those traditions and culture that they passed down to me and we all have an obligation. I mean, I’m a Pueblo woman and it doesn’t matter where your ancestors came from—they came from England or Scotland or Germany or wherever they came from—they worked hard to make sure that you are here today and you have an obligation to honor their legacy, and we do that by making the best world we possibly can. [That means] participating in this election, moving our country forward, protecting our democracy, protecting this Constitution, protecting the ideals that as a country that we’ve always needed to perfect. We have that obligation. I see brighter days ahead. I’m going to give my heart and soul, put my heart and soul into this election and I hope that everybody will join me in doing that.
Zaragoza:Woo, I just want to clap! Yes! I’m so so with you on that. You know, I always think about how where I’m standing now has been so many generations in the making. My grandmothers and my great-grandmothers—I think about all that they did to get me into this very privileged position of being able to vote, being able to use my voice and being able to speak out and so, I’m with you and I hope everyone listening today is going to get out and vote because voting as sacred, as you’ve said. It’s in honor of our ancestors. And so I have just a couple more questions for you. Why is healing important to you and what is your self care? I’m sure you deal with much stress and as the election comes forward, how do you take care of yourself?
Haaland: Thank you for asking that. You know, sometimes I just have to force myself to take the time to cook. Last night, I made rice! During the pandemic, when I’m in New Mexico, since I was home working, it was easy for me to cook every night. But when I’m here in D.C., it’s altogether a different type of schedule. But I did cook, I made rice and lentils last night, a big pot of it so I’d have leftovers.
Haaland: But I mean, you know, go to the store. Take time to go to the store. You know what, yesterday I stopped at the store, I was on a conference call, I had my ear-buds in while I was shopping so I was able to multitask. I think eating healthy food is a must because you need the energy that that provides. When I’m here, I walk to work everyday. I walk as much as I can. I’m suffering from a little bit of a hamstring situation right now.
Zaragoza: Oh no!
Haaland: So if anybody has any ideas about how to fix that, I’d appreciate it! All the stretching that I’ve been doing isn’t helping but otherwise I’d be going for runs. So now I have to walk. But walk, do yoga, whatever it is that you do—take at least a half an hour out of your day to get your blood pumping. But it’s so important self care, no one else is going to take care of you. You have to do that on your own.
Zaragoza: And so I just have one more question for you, what do you hope to see in the next 100 years of women having the right to vote?
Haaland: I want to see—well, hopefully it’ll come before 100 years—right now, women are about 50% of the population, we need to be 50% of elected officials in this country, including Congress, right? I mean right now, we’re less than 25% of women in Congress and if you were to look at that on a pie chart it’s very stark. Twenty-five percent sounds like a lot, but if you look at it on a pie chart, it’s a stark comparison. We need more women to run for office. We need more women in leadership positions. We need folks fighting for the things that we need and deserve. When you think about women’s right to vote, and you mentioned earlier that Native women were at the forefront of that struggle and they were, but in a lot of states in the country, Native women, Asian American women, Black women—they weren’t allowed to vote when the 19th Amendment passed. So we continue to see communities of color struggle for equality and for equity. So we need more women to step up so that we can lift each other up.