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Indigenous representation in Congress hits milestone

From left to right are Reps. Kahele, Peltola and Davids outside the Capitol on Sept. 13. (Via Rep. Kahele’s Twitter)

Native people quietly achieved a milestone in the U.S. Congress this past summer. When Rep. Mary Peltola, an Alaska Native and Democrat, was sworn in Sept. 13 after winning an Aug. 16 special election, it marked a feat hundreds of years in the making for Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele, a Democrat from Hawaii, said it is the first time in more than 233 years that Indigenous people are fully represented in the Congress. The other Democrat joining Peltola and Kahele is Rep. Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation) from Kansas who was elected in 2019.

There are now six Indigenous Americans in the U.S. House – six Democrats and six Republicans. The three Republicans are Tom Cole (Chickasaw), R-OK; Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee), R-OK; and Yvette Herrell (Cherokee), R-NM.

Peltola, the first Alaska Native woman elected to the House for Alaska, is taking over Rep. Don Young’s seat. Young died in March.

“It’s a historic moment,” Lani Teves, an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, told NPR in September. “Having different Indigenous communities represented shows the growing power of Native people across the United States and across the world.”

However, the increase in Indigenous representation in Congress has been slow going.

Davids and now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) became the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2019. Kahele, meanwhile, is just the second Native Hawaiian to represent his home state.

“Down the road, this representation can have a big impact on the political power of Indigenous communities in the U.S.,” Teves continued. “People need representation and young people need to see people that look like themselves, that come from their communities.”

To hold her seat, Peltola needs to win reelection in the November midterms. Kahele is expected to wrap up his final term in Congress in 2023.