British Columbia

'It's our time': U.S. midterm wins mean victory for Indigenous women worldwide, say voters and leaders

Indigenous women from North America are reflecting on what it means to have the first Native American women voted into U.S. Congress.

'I was smiling ear to ear. I was inspired. I thought, this is huge,' says Indigenous-Canadian expat

Deb Haaland (left), from the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, is one of two Native American women to be the first ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Debra Lekanoff (right) is a Tlingit and Aleut woman and the first Native American woman to be elected to the Washington state House of Representatives for the 40th Legislative District. (Submitted by Deb Haaland and Debra Lekanoff )

When the United States midterm election results starting rolling in on social media with a solid win for two Native American women to Congress, Laurie Ahdemar's heart started pounding.

"I was smiling ear to ear. I was inspired. I thought, this is huge," Ahdemar told the CBC in Blaine, Wash.

The 41-year-old Secwepemc woman moved across the border from Vancouver three years ago to join her American common law partner.

Ahdemar was ecstatic to learn that Democrat Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and Democrat Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk, became the first Native American women elected to Congress.

Laurie Ahdemar in her home in Blaine, Wash., reflecting on what it means to Indigenous women in the U.S. and her community in Canada to see themselves reflected in high level leadership roles in politics. (Angela Sterritt)

Outspoken about her frustration with Trump and Indigenous people's struggles, Haaland won New Mexico's blue-leaning First Congressional District.

Davids is a lawyer who defeated four-term Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder in Kansas. She is also the first openly lesbian congresswoman.

They join just two more Native American Congress members — Republicans Markwayne Mullin and Tom Cole, both of Oklahoma.

'This is my America, too'

The two congresswoman weren't the only Native American women who won their races in the U.S. midterm elections.

Debra Lekanoff, a Tlingit and Aleut woman originally from Alaska, beat Michael Petrish by more than 70 per cent of the vote for the Washington state House of Representatives race for the 40th Legislative District.

"It is our time, as women and women of colour, to share our incredible way of thinking, sharing and decision making," Lekanoff said.

Minnesota also met a milestone by electing its first Native American female lieutenant governor in the midterms.

Debra Lekanoff says she is honoured to be voted in as the first Native America woman to serve in the Washington state House of Representatives. (Submitted by Debra Lekanoff)

Lekanoff  said her first priorities in office are protecting the Salish Sea, investing in education and protecting jobs and growing the economy. But she also thinks her heritage plays an important part in the political fabric of the U.S.

She points out that historical wrongs against Indigenous people, such as residential schools and being denied the right to vote (until 1948 in the U.S. and 1960 in Canada) prevented Indigenous people from being able to engage civically.  

That history, she said, makes Native American's perspectives key.

"We will take our way of surviving into the leadership and decision-making tables, and grab arms around those tables and say we can do this better together," Lekanoff said.

 "This is my America, too," she added.

'Fight for your dreams'

B.C. Minister of Advanced Education Melanie Mark was also watching the U.S. midterm results with glee.

"It's incredible, it's thrilling," she said of the Native American wins across the border.

Mark said the win is a victory for Indigenous women worldwide.

"I am always proud of anyone who can break through the glass ceiling and represent diversity," said Mark, who was the first First Nations woman to be named to cabinet in B.C.

Melanie Mark, MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant was the first First Nations woman to serve in the legislature. She said seeing the wins for Native American women is a victory for Indigenous women worldwide. ( Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

'We might be the first, but we sure won't be the last'

Mark said as a mother she feels it's important for Indigenous kids to see themselves reflected in politics and know they can reach heights in leadership positions.

"I always tell children I meet: Don't stop believing, fight for your dreams and fight for your future," she said.

It's time, she said, that Indigenous people begin taking their place in politics — not just in their own communities but provincially and nationally.

"When I look at those women, I see the mountain we have been climbing for a long time, as Indigenous people, and we are starting to finally see the top," she said.

"We might be the first, but we sure won't be the last," she added.

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