Deb Haaland takes off – and a rising generation in Indian country is taking notes
Jazmine Wildcat is a star student in Riverton, Wyoming. Not the type to skip class. But on Tuesday morning, a piece of history was unfolding that the 17-year-old simply couldn’t miss: a congressional hearing to consider confirmation of Deb Haaland as the first Indigenous Home Secretary.
“It’s just super monumental and so inspiring, not only for me, but probably for other native women,” Jazmine said.
I joined Jazmine and her sister Christie Wildcat, 22, on Zoom for some sort of surveillance night on Tuesday morning. As Haaland took his place, Christie took note of her traditional Pueblo jewelry.
“She’s decked out in turquoise, if you want to know,” she laughed. “And I appreciate that she started her speech in her native language. It was just great to hear.”
In her opening statement, Haaland explained how her Laguna Pueblo roots would inform her work at the Home Office and pledged to balance energy, climate and natural resources policy.
“There is no doubt that fossil energy plays and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund essential services,” Haaland said.
“See you right there?” Said Christie. “I wonder if any of the committee members somehow sighed in relief.”
But Christie and Jazmine know that at least a few senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee probably cannot be convinced.
“They’ve already stereotyped her as radical,” Jazmine said.
The Wildcat sisters know a thing or two about being stereotyped as radical Indigenous women. They are citizens of the Northern Arapaho tribe and both have leftist politics, speaking out on issues such as gun control, climate change and racial justice. They grew up in predominantly white schools in dark red Wyoming.
They are gearing up as their own Senator, Republican of Wyoming John Barrasso, dashes into a series of pointed questions about the viability of fossil fuel extraction in the United States.
“Barrasso’s questions aren’t really meant to learn more about his policies. He’s super condescending,” Jazmine said with visible frustration.
“I don’t like any part of it,” agreed Christie. “Just the way he wasn’t really asking questions, it was more like an attack. He’s really just trying to discredit her.”
For these two women, this is more than usual partisan politics at a committee hearing. They recognized what Haaland was facing from their own experiences. Sometimes they were the only Aboriginal woman in the room.
“It reminds me of debates in my government class,” Jazmine said when Utah Senator Mike Lee spoke of Haaland using what she saw as a patronizing tone. “So to see it at the federal level is like mind boggling.”
“Yeah, big eye roll,” added Christie. “It’s like, what’s up?” Even though I can get this important role, are you still going to talk down to me? Are you still going to condescend me?
It is a dynamic that they know. And they were taking notes on how Haaland pushed back.
A few hundred miles south in the Congressional District of Haaland, students at Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque were also taking advantage.
Indigenous history teacher Nick Felipe, a citizen of the Acoma Pueblo, showed his college students excerpts from the audience and led a discussion about the importance of the Home Office in the lives of Indigenous Americans.
“[The Interior Secretary’s job] will maintain this relationship between the federal government and the aboriginal nations. So with that in mind, what kind of impact does this have on our communities? ”Felipe asks his students.
“I think it’s important, and it’s good that there is a Native American woman who is heard,” replied Malila Deschiney, eighth grade student, citizen of the Navajo Nation. “I think a lot of people are very – what’s that word, biased, I think? – about native people. And we’re often associated with alcohol, not being very smart. Stuff like that. “
The thirteen-year-old said Haaland is living proof that these racist stereotypes are not rooted in reality. And she said she was happy that Indigenous people had a voice in the new presidential cabinet.
“Because I think it’s important that all voices are heard, not just one-sided stories,” she said.
His classmate, Juliano Harding, 14, who is also Navajo, agreed.
“Because we’ve never had a chance in government. But now we can. She’s defending us. And she’s trying to help us,” Harding said. “And she shows [Native people] to the rest of the world and let them know we’re here. “
The next morning, Haaland faced tougher questions from senators on the second and final day of her confirmation of charges hearing.
Jazmine Wildcat listened on headphones during some of her morning classes. Christie checked social media for highlights between her graduate classes.
Both women have big dreams. Jazmine intends to become a psychiatrist and advocate for the mental health of indigenous peoples. Christie might one day like to replace John Barrasso in the Senate. They say the rise of Deb Haaland makes these aspirations more tangible.
“Watching her, I realize that I can do whatever I want. Christie can do whatever she wants. She can possibly be president,” Jazmine said.
“It’s just great because I can see myself in her and I’m like, ‘OK, she thought about it.’ I aspire to be like this someday, ”Christie said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in MT, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New -Mexico, with the support of affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Public broadcasting company.