In 2008, when Deb Haaland was driving across the sprawling landscapes of New Mexico, working to register Native American voters near the tribal land where she grew up, she remembers knocking on the door of one particular house in San Felipe Pueblo.
Haaland recalls that multiple generations lived in the house — parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — and she was able to help complete registration forms for seven different people.
“The last man I registered stood up and said, ‘Thank you so much. I’ve always wanted to vote but never knew how,'” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s very clear to me that we always, always need to reach out.”
Though Native Americans have been able to vote in the United States since 1924, their rates of registration and participation remain low. According to the National Congress of American Indians, more than a third of the Native population over 18 is not registered to vote.
Four years later, during the 2012 election, Haaland would serve as Native American vote director for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and would become the first Native American woman to chair a state Democratic Party.
This year, she’s hoping to make history again. Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, is running for Congress in New Mexico’s 1st district. If she’s successful, will become the first Native American woman in the U.S. Congress.
Like many Democrats this year, especially in solidly blue districts like hers (Cook Political Report marks the state as having a 7 point Democratic advantage) Haaland is running in opposition to Trump. She has no problem speaking out against the president — although she said she prefers to talk about him as little as possible. To survive the Democratic primary, Haaland says she plans to push dialogue to the left on issues important to voters in the Southwest, including climate change, renewable energy, the preservation of national monuments, and education.
A successful campaign will also require the type of work Haaland has done since the beginning of her political career: Registering and mobilizing Native American voters.
“There have been elections in New Mexico where the Native population has actually made a huge difference in who got elected,” she said.
Native Americans make up a little over 10 percent of the state’s population, and Albuquerque, in District 1, has the largest urban Native population.
“We’ll do all we can to make sure we get those folks out to vote,” Haaland said. “Those of us who are on the front lines working to ensure that we have a robust program to get voters out, it’s up to us to engage people and make sure they know and understand that it’s their right and we’ll do everything we can to get people registered and to the polls.”
Haaland has enlisted help from people like Evelyn Blanchard, a 79-year-old member of the Laguna Pueblo who lives in Albuquerque and is helping the campaign with Native voter outreach. Blanchard is working to collect data about Native voters which can be used this year and in future elections.
“We have such an opportunity with Debra running to get a grasp on this very valuable information about our community,” she told ThinkProgress. “A lot of Indian people do not vote, so we have to do what we can to continue to overcome that barrier. If we can get people involved in the primary, the chances of them voting in the general are increased.”
Having a Native candidate on the ballot will help encourage people to participate, Blanchard said.
“This is the first chance that many people have had to vote for a Native,” she said. “It means a great deal — she’ll be the first one there.”
Haaland is joined by a number of other Native women also vying for seats in Congress this year, from both sides of the aisle. Democrat Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation is also running for Congress in Kansas, three others are running for governors and, according to the New York Times, another 31 are vying for seats in state legislatures.
New Mexico has the advantage of progressive voting laws that some states with large Native populations do not. Since 2016, New Mexicans have been able to register to vote online, though not everyone has access to the internet. “We have a lot of rural communities here,” Haaland said.
Native communities in other states have struggled with local and state governments that are not willing to accommodate them when it comes to elections. Natives have resorted to litigation in states including South Dakota, Nevada, and Alaska, seeking polling locations that are accessible to people living on reservations and translated voting materials.
“Here in New Mexico, we’re very fortunate,” Haaland said. “Our elected officials, our state legislators, and for the most part the administrations have worked very hard — we have good relationships with our tribes and pueblos.”
“I may not even be running for Congress right now if my state wasn’t that way,” she added.
Meanwhile, the same cannot be said for the federal government. Trump has had a hostile relationship for Native Americans for decades, often using racially-charged language against tribes who have attempted to open casinos and compete with his business. More recently, he has taken to referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas,” mocking the Democrat’s claim to Native American ancestry.
Even though Warren is not enrolled in a tribe and some Native people have taken issue with her claim, Haaland said it’s not her job to police who is and is not Native. After all, Haaland’s daughter is not an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo because of the tribe’s strict rules on membership, yet Haaland says she would never tell her that she is not Native.
As the June 5 primary approaches, Haaland has earned endorsements from at least 16 members of Congress and dozens of Native American tribal leaders and both New Mexico pueblos and tribes and tribes across the country. As of the end of 2017, she’d raised almost $385,000, trailing behind just one other Democratic candidate, former University of New Mexico law school associate dean and anti-domestic violence advocate Antoinette Sedillo Lopez. In March, Haaland topped the vote at the state Democratic Party convention with 35 percent compared to Lopez’s 25 percent.
If Haaland does secure the Democratic nomination and then the seat in November, becoming the first native woman in the House, she said that a large part of her job in the Capitol would be to make sure that many more follow behind.
“If I win, I will wholeheartedly put as much effort as I can toward helping to get other women of color elected,” she said.