This article is part of Prism’s series on Tribal Nations, Voting Rights, & Political Power. Read the rest of the series here.
Representation matters. Whether it’s in classrooms, boardrooms, or Congress, the experiences of those in power shape the decisions they make. For too long the same voices—often white, male, privileged—are the only voices that have influenced and shaped public policy.
Native women were not represented in Congress until 2018 when Sharice Davids and I became the first Native women elected to the House of Representatives. According to data compiled by Indian Country Today and Advance Native Political Leadership, in 2020, nine Native American women are running for Congress and six will advance to the general election in November: Deb Haaland, Sharice Davids, Lynette Grey Bull, Danyell Lanier, Yvette Herrell, and Paulette Jordan. They join the record number of women running for state and federal elected office.
My friend and sister Ayanna Presley has said, “Those who are closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Native peoples, and specifically Native women, have faced many obstacles in the fight for equality. Since colonization, Native peoples have had to relentlessly fight for basic rights and to be seen as citizens on our own lands. We are the original peoples of this continent, yet we were the last to gain the right to vote. Native Americans were not recognized as citizens of the United States until 1924, and even then, citizenship was used as a tool of assimilation. Native Americans were not able to vote in all 50 states until 1962. Our ancestors struggled, fought, and died for a future where I could walk the halls of Congress, not just as a citizen, but as a representative.
I ran for Congress for those that came before me and for those who come after. Today I proudly represent not only myself, but my district in New Mexico and Native Americans across the country. I am proud they can look to Congress and see a face like mine, like Sharice’s, and see their own stories, resilience, and struggles reflected back. We may have been the first, but we will not be the last.
Our fight for a more representative government is in jeopardy. Native Americans face a number of modern voter suppression challenges today. These challenges vary state-to-state: from voter ID laws not recognizing tribal IDs as a valid form of identification, to tribal street addresses not being recognized as valid in certain states. The impact of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Native, Black, and Latinx communities, has made it clear that access to affordable health care has an undeniable impact on our ability to vote. Insufficient access to proper health care and mental health services has long impacted Native communities and has been a failing of the federal government to live up to its trust responsibility. If we are unable to properly care for our bodies and minds, it prohibits all Americans, not just Native peoples, from fully participating in what is one of our most basic and sacred democratic rights.
While we can be proud that we have the most diverse Congress in history, we can’t forget the generations of Native American, Black, and Latinx peoples who have had to fight against racism, bigotry, and oppression, and are still fighting today. Now less than two weeks from one of the most important elections in our lifetimes, it is imperative for Native American voices to be heard.
The stakes of this election are like none we’ve ever seen. The future of democracy is at stake. But we must and we will step into our collective power, and rise to the challenge and create an equal and just nation for all.
So today I would encourage you to vote like your life depends on it—because it does. Vote to protect our planet. Vote to ensure our treaty rights are recognized. Vote for better jobs, fair wages, and better health care. Vote to protect the safety of Indigenous and all women and girls. Vote for our future.