Deb Haaland Takes Off – And A Rising Generation In Indian Country Takes 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 just couldn't miss: A congressional hearing to consider the confirmation of Deb Haaland as the first Indigenous secretary of the Interior.
"It is just super monumental and so inspiring, not only to just me, but probably other Native women," Jazmine said.
I joined Jazmine and her 22-year-old sister Christie Wildcat on Zoom for something of a watch party on Tuesday morning. As Haaland took her seat, Christie took note of her traditional Pueblo jewelry.
"She is decked out in turquoise, if you must know," she said with a laugh. "And I appreciate that she started her speech in her Native language. That was just awesome to hear."
In her opening statement, Haaland spoke about how her Laguna Pueblo roots would inform her work in the Department of the Interior, and pledged balance on energy, climate and natural resource policy.
"There's no question that fossil energy does 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 critical services," Haaland said.
"See right there?" Christie said. "I wonder if some of the committee members kind of sighed with relief."
But both Christie and Jazmine know that at least a few senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee probably can't be won over.
"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're citizens of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and both have left-leaning politics, speaking out about issues like gun control, climate change and racial justice. They grew up going to majority-white schools in deep-red Wyoming.
They brace themselves as their own senator, Wyoming Republican John Barrasso, launches into a series of sharp questions on the viability of fossil fuel extraction in the United States.
"Barrasso's questions aren't really meant to learn about her policies. He's being super condescending," Jazmine said with visible frustration.
"I do not like any part of that," Christie agreed. "Just the way he wasn't really asking the 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. Times they've been the only Native woman in the room.
"This reminds me of debates in my government class," Jazmine said when Sen. Mike Lee of Utah talked over Haaland using what she perceived as a patronizing tone. "So, seeing it on, like, a federal level, it's like mind boggling."
"Yes, major eye roll," Christie added. "It's like, what's new? Even if I can get this high role, you're still going to talk down to me? You're still going to condescend me?"
It's a dynamic they're familiar with. And they were taking notes on how Haaland pushed back.
A few hundred miles south in Haaland's congressional district, students at Albuquerque's Native American Community Academy were also taking this in.
Indigenous history teacher Nick Felipe, a citizen of the Acoma Pueblo, showed his middle schoolers clips from the hearing and led a discussion about the significance of the Interior Department in the lives of Indigenous Americans.
"[The Interior Secretary's job] is going to be maintaining that relationship between the federal government and Native 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's a Native American woman being heard," answered eighth grader Malila Deschiney, a citizen of the Navajo Nation "I think a lot of people are very - what's that word, biased, I think? - about Natives. And we're often associated with, like, alcohol, not being very smart. Kind of stuff like that."
The thirteen-year-old said Haaland is living proof that those racist stereotypes aren't rooted in reality. And she said she's glad that Native people will have a voice in the new presidential cabinet.
"'Cause I think it's important for all voices to be heard, not just one-sided stories," she said.
Her classmate, 14-year-old Juliano Harding, who's also Navajo, agreed.
"'Cause we never had a chance in the government. But now, we can. She's, like, standing up for us. And she's trying to help us," Harding said. "And she's showing [Native people] off to the rest of the world and letting them know that we're here."
The following morning, Haaland's faced more tough questions from senators on the second and final day of her confirmation hearing.
Jazmine Wildcat was listening through headphones during some of her morning classes. Christie checked social media for highlights between her graduate school coursework.
Both women have big dreams. Jazmine has plans to become a psychiatrist and mental health advocate for Indigenous people. Christie might like to replace John Barrasso in the Senate some day. They say Deb Haaland's ascent makes those aspirations more tangible.
"Watching her, I realize that I can do whatever I want. Christie can do whatever she wants. She can eventually be president," Jazmine said.
"It's just awesome because I can see myself in her and I'm like, 'OK, she put her mind to it.' I aspire to be like that 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 Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.