Here are two numbers to chew on.
226 years. That’s how long it’s taken for this country to elect a woman like me to congress.
56 years. That’s how long people like me have been able to vote.
Native Americans are the first inhabitants of this land. Yet we are one of the last groups recognized to vote and one of the last groups to have a representative in Congress. Native peoples gained nationwide access to voting rights only with the 1965 Civil Rights Act – which means my grandparents could not vote when they turned 18.
I remember when Ben Nighthorse Campbell was elected to the US Senate in 1992. A decade later I was walking the halls of the US Capitol as a young intern, and I remember seeing a photo of him sitting on a motorcycle. I thought to myself: “There he is. He’s the one that made it. He represents us.” He was my icon, because he was the only one.
If we want little girls of color to grow up believing that their vote matters, that they can rise to the highest office in the land – we have to prove it to them.
Two and a half decades later, young Native women across the country now have new icons to look up to. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids made history last week by becoming the first Native American women ever elected to Congress. That’s right: the very first.
Deb is from the Laguna Pueblo and is a well-known member in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe communities for her civic engagement. She was also my moot court partner at the University of New México School of Law. We spent countless hours reviewing mock briefs together and preparing for oral argument. She’s one of the most incredible Native women I know, a dedicated, determined, and humble servant of the people. Within 48 hours of being elected, she immediately called for a probe for missing and murdered Indigenous women – a crisis in Indian Country that U.S. leaders have failed to take action on.
Congresswoman-elect Sharice Davids is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Like me, she is a Native lesbian attorney. She made history this week by also being elected the first openly LGBT congressperson from the state of Kansas.
Close your eyes. Imagine for just a moment that you’re me. It’s 2018 and for the first time in history, people like you have been elected to Congress. Imagine how you’d feel if one of our highest bodies of leadership, a body designed to represent its constituents, suddenly included people like you when it never had before.
Remember when that photo went viral of Parker Curry standing in front of First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery? I think I’m feeling something like what she felt in that moment. There was so much awe and wonder in little Parker’s expression. I’m…a number… of years older than Parker was in that photo, but I find myself looking at images of Deb and Sharice and grinning just as wildly with excitement. Those images hold so much promise for me and other women and girls like me.
We all need the promise of mentors and leaders who look like us. These are the people paving the way for others, breaking the ceiling and laying the foundation for a better tomorrow. That’s one of the reasons why communities like Standing Rock stood up to voter suppression in the 2018 election and quadrupled their voter turnout from 2014.
Did you catch that? Yes, voter suppression. 56 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, and five years after it was undermined by the Supreme Court, and Native American communities are still subjected to the same type of pathetic, harmful, and racist limitations that were imposed on people like me just a generation ago.
If we want little girls of color to grow up believing that their vote matters, that they can rise to the highest office in the land – we have to prove it to them. Little girls of color across this country struggle to find a doll that looks like them much less a congressional representative. Little boys of color grow up taking in movies and TV shows that paint men of color as dangerous. We have to work for representation of all people and identities so that we can provide positive examples for little ones to grow into. To learn more about the power of seeing your identity reflected in the world around you, check out Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.
As for me, I know that I’m going to be telling the story of Deb and Sharice next time I talk to my little nieces and cousins. I want them to know they can grow up to be anything they want to be.
Nellis Kennedy-Howard is the Sierra Club’s Director of Equity, Inclusion and Justice, she is an attorney with certificates in Federal Indian Law and Natural Resources Law.
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