August 2017

Debra Haaland Continues the Legacy of Native Women Leaders


Debra Haaland, from Laguna Pueblo, hopes to become the first Native American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She is running in the June 2018 Democratic primary against three contenders who seek to fill the open seat that has been held by Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. Grisham is running for governor.


A former New Mexico Democratic Party state chair (the first Native American to chair a state party), Haaland ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on the ticket with then-Attorney Gen. Gary King in 2014. She has a background in business management and economic development. She is former chairwoman of Laguna Development Corp., which runs the pueblo’s businesses. A graduate of the University of New Mexico and its law school, Haaland has also worked as a tribal administrator and has done a lot of grassroots organizing.


While chairwoman, Haaland went to Standing Rock, South Dakota, in support of the “water protectors,” and divested the party’s funds from Wells Fargo because of its investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Haaland has said that she wants to double down on New Mexico’s renewable energy; she sees solar as the way of the future. She also wants to improve veterans’ services and strengthen the state’s public education system.


Debra Haaland continues the legacy of Native American women leaders such as Agnes Dill and Verna Teller.


Agnes Dill (1913–2012)

Dill (Isleta/Laguna) was an educator, cultural ambassador and staunch advocate for Indian women’s rights. In the 1960s she became active in tribal affairs at Isleta Pueblo, serving as assistant director of the Community Action Program. She was appointed clerk of the tribal court, where she became active in voting rights. In 1976, she was a member of a committee whose efforts to amend the tribal constitution set in motion the reform necessary to elect the tribe’s first woman governor, Verna Teller. Dill went on to co-found the New Mexico state chapter of the North American Indian Women’s Association (NAIWA) in 1971, initiated a study for setting up a job/talent bank for Indian women, and was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the National Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs. Later she was elected president of the New Mexico Indian Council on Aging and received many distinguished awards for community service.


Verna Teller

Verna Olguín Teller was the first woman governor of Isleta Pueblo, serving from 1987 to 1990. Following her tenure as governor, Teller served as the pueblo’s chief justice, president of the Tribal Council and as a council member.


Under her guidance, Isleta Pueblo became the first tribe in the United States to assert its right under federal law to establish water-quality standards. In the 1990s, as the city of Albuquerque grew by leaps and bounds, the Río Grande became so foul that, as governor of the pueblo immediately downstream, Teller decided that she had no choice but to challenge the city. With help from the Environmental Protection Agency, she invoked a little-known provision in the Clean Water Act to assert her tribe’s right to establish its own water-quality standards. The city filed suit to prevent Isleta’s standards from taking effect. The city lost. In the final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998, the tribe’s right to establish its own water-quality standards was upheld. From Maine to California, dozens of tribes have since followed Isleta’s lead.


Teller went on to serve as project manager for the Native Peoples-Native Homelands Southwest Initiative, a project sponsored by NASA to examine the effects of climate change on Native Americans. As project director for Tribal Tobacco Health, Education and Outreach, she helped develop cancer prevention programs through Indian Health Services, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society.


During her career as a political and community leader, in the face of adversity, discrimination and uncertainty, Teller’s political leadership and civic activism have had a lasting impact on the people in her community.



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