On Monday night, Representative Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) spoke to members of the Bowdoin community over Zoom on a range of issues, including the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the recent presidential election and climate change. Haaland was elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, and, as a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, was one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress.
The talk was the first virtual event of this year’s Native American Heritage Month and was co-hosted by the Native American Student Association (NASA) and the Bowdoin Outing Club (BOC). Haaland began with a presentation followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience, moderated by NASA co-leaders Sunshine Eaton ’22 and Amanda Cassano ’22.
Haaland began her lecture by addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Native communities, especially in her home state.
“The broadest-reaching threat to the wellbeing of Indigenous Americans currently is the COVID-19 pandemic and its augmented destructiveness as a result of long standing neglect and the long lasting legacies of settler colonialism and structural inequality in the United States,” Haaland said. “In New Mexico, where I represent Native Americans, the native populations make up less than 11 percent, but at one time were more than half of the coronavirus cases that were reported here in New Mexico.”
Haaland explained that much of this disproportionate impact is due to the fact that many Native Americans have been exposed to radiation and contaminating chemicals on tribal land, leading many to experience underlying health conditions.
Additionally, Haaland pointed out that many Indigenous healthcare systems are underdeveloped and underfunded. In Congress, Haaland helped to secure over $56 million in aid to New Mexico healthcare providers from the Coronavirus Aird, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March.
Haaland also brought up the high number of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and explained the lack of infrastructure and federal support behind it, such as limited cell phone service and limited police presence on tribal lands.
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] has a police department that serves Native communities, but I know for a fact, because I’ve worked in Indian country or New Mexico, that it’s not always a reliable law enforcement agency,” Haaland said. “I used to use the example that I could be in the middle of the Navajo Nation and call the police if I were in fear of being assaulted but, number one, I may not get a signal. Number two, where would my call go, which agency would it go to? These are all things that we need to figure out. And then even if it did go to the BIA police, there’s a chance it could take them two hours to get somewhere, because there’s not enough people serving Indian country.”
In September, Haaland helped to pass an updated version of Savanna’s Act, a law that will attempt to increase coordination between different law enforcement agencies on tribal lands and improve the data collection system to track missing Indigenous people.
“In Indian Country, families sometimes wait days or weeks for the authorities to respond to a call about a missing family member, and frequently the families are the ones who lead the search parties,” Haaland said. “It isn’t the law enforcement agencies.”
Annie Maher ’21, who is doing an independent study project on MMIWG and Savanna’s Act, said that she found Haaland’s answers on this topic helpful.
“She made some great points in regards to how this issue [of MMIWG] is not new,” Maher said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It’s been happening since colonization. I think it’s, in a sense, a result of colonization. American Indian women have been mistreated since the arrival of Europeans in America. And she pointed towards that, which I thought was important.”
Haaland also discussed the history of colonization while responding to a question from a student about whether she believed Pueblo women should be able to serve as tribal governors. Currently, leadership positions within the tribe are reserved for men.
“I recognize and respect our traditional roles, our traditional values,” Haaland said. “But I feel like colonization has had a direct impact, a direct negative impact, on Pueblo women. We have been leaders in our communities for centuries, and then colonization happened, and it’s almost like certain parts of that colonizing effect on our people have never left … Knowing that I could never run for governor in my own Pueblo, that’s why I decided to run for Congress, because I know I have an opportunity to get elected and to have an opportunity to lead.”
Haaland also addressed the recent election of former Vice President Joe Biden and expressed her optimism that a Biden administration would more effectively confront the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
“[Biden is] on the right track already,” Haaland said. “He was president-elect for less than 24 hours when he started working on a coronavirus task force. President Trump hasn’t done anything about the coronavirus. He’s done nothing except to spread it across the country with all of his rallies and his White House super spreaders.”
Aine Lawlor ’21, a leader of the BOC, was hopeful that Haaland’s policy positions would be brought into the Biden administration. Haaland is considered to be a contender for Secretary of the Interior in Biden’s cabinet. According to The Hill, if chosen, she would be the first Native American to serve in any Cabinet position.
“I think that I’m really interested to see who Biden’s cabinet is and whether or not [Haaland] is a pick in there, because I know there’s talk of her being considered,” Lawlor said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Haaland also responded to a question from Roger Renfrew ’70 about what Bowdoin, specifically, can do to support Native communities.
“Any institution can show its commitment to that ideal by making sure that they are hiring professors of color, that the diversity is reflected in the staff, in the faculty and in the student body,” Haaland said. “Native American students are the most underrepresented students in higher education, no matter where you look.”
Members of NASA expressed their appreciation of Haaland’s response to this question.
“That was something that I really found very powerful because that’s something NASA has been really trying to do, to bring more Natives to campus in order to support us as students and just to build a community,” Eaton said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Although NASA has been advocating for more Native representation on campus, Cassano said that, ultimately, it is up to the College to make these decisions.
“There are literally thousands of Native PhD students out there who would be more than happy to be serving a position at a college such as Bowdoin,” Cassano said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “All Bowdoin really needs to do is reach out and ask them to come here and create an environment that is hospitable to Native community members, that’s inclusive and creates an environment that people can see themselves living here for long term.”
Emma Simpson ’22, a member of NASA who attended the event, also explained that having Native faculty at Bowdoin would provide a more supportive atmosphere for Native students.
“We don’t have any Native faculty, we have an insanely small Native student population on campus,” Simpson said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “At times it can be very tiring to be the one to stand up and say ‘Nope, you can’t really use that terminology.’”