Debra Haaland

Who Speaks for You? - Dec. 22, 2016

Debra Haaland
December 22, 2016
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I am a descendant of farmers. My ancestors followed the rivers to the pueblos of Pecos Laguna and Hamish to sing, plant, and live. Their hard work, preservice, and love have led me to here, to help diverse voices find a place in our community. But it may not have happened that way, because at one point the federal government thought it a great idea to move Indian into mainstream society. It happened in many ways. My grandpa he bought part of that argument, but he took most of assimilation and turned it on its head.

You see, my grandpa left the pueblo to be a diesel train mechanic. And in the 45 years he spend working on the railroad in Winslow Arizona, he learned four languages; he taught himself to read music; to play brass horns; he painted and sculpted; he started an all Indian baseball team – and made them state champions. While away my grandfather practiced our ceremonies and kept our traditions alive. ‘Assimilation would not get the better of him’ he told us, in a loud and clear voice.

My dad – whose grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Holland farm on Kvitsøy, Norway – served our country for 30 years as a U.S. marine. His chest, heavy with medals, told the story of his selflessness and self-discipline; and of the crack and dust of combat.

My mother, she was your average renaissance woman. She played the snare drum in a marching band; he joined the navy out of high school; she played baseball. In fact she could tell you the stats on every single San Francisco Giants player. She could also hunt, skin, butcher, and cook a deer.

These people, whom I loved, spoke for me when I was young. And in as much as my parents and grandparents inspired me, in 1948 a man called Miguel Trujillo, an Isleta Pueblo World War II marine veteran, spoke for Native Americans when he sued the state of New Mexico so that Indians living in their communities could vote in state elections. He still speaks for me. It’s a testament to Miguel’s voice, in 1948, that I appeared on the ballot for New Mexico lieutenant governor in 2014.

Who speaks for you? Would it be easier for you to find someone who speaks for you if more women of color were elected to public office?

My grandmother, was taken by train to boarding school when she was 8 years old. She later worked graveyard leading as shift of women carrying buckets of kerosene and brushes to scrub diesel train engines, every single night. She could keep the trains at the Santa Fe Railroad Depot moving, but she couldn’t run for office. And even for a Renaissance women, the time wasn’t right for my mom or women like her – and they couldn’t run either.

Who speaks for you? Would it be easier for you to find a voice that speaks for you if more women of color were elected to public office?

As the first Native American to lead a state political party in our country and a former statewide candidate, I learned what it meant to be a native woman candidate when few role models existed. To travel the state over and over; to bear witness to the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises in the state that I love; to learn of injustices suffered, and of folks who just need us to take a side. My people, all our people, need a voice. There’s too much drug addiction; too much teen suicide; too many oil companies, willing to disrespect the sovereignty of tribal nations – there’s too much at stake, and more of us need to sing in unison. Women need strong voices for equal pay; for affordable childcare; for good food that nourishes the tiniest of hearts. My daughter, a young Native American, gay college student, needs someone who will speak up for her too.

The needs of our society are based, are answered, when those who have the power to make decisions have the ability to see what you see. Your struggles must be theirs, so too your sorrows and your joys. Diversity yields unique perspectives – which might be all a community needs to answer its greatest challenges.

The best memories I have, are of me and my grandpa picking worms off ears of corn in the field below our village. In front of us, a towering red mesa and sky that won’t quit. We’re eating the sweetest peaches in the shade of a tree; a cool breeze, a river, the whistle of a rolling train. I am a descendant of farmers, and I speak because they made it so. Who speaks for you? And will you do your part in encouraging diversity to lead us into the future? Because your voice, and your action matter.

Leadership is important. Find a leader, maybe it’s you. Put on your walking shoes, walk for your candidate. Honor the sacrifices of our ancestors.

Haaland, D. [TEDx Talks]. (2016, December 22). Who speaks for you? | Debra Haaland | TEDxABQ [] Retrieved on March 2, 2022 from