Thankfully, we're getting more Native Americans reps in Congress this January


In January, Rep.-elect Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsIs nonpartisan effectiveness still possible? Biden to meet with bipartisan lawmakers on infrastructure When infrastructure fails MORE (D-Kan.) and Deb HaalandDeb HaalandGOP senator defends Cheney, Murkowski after Trump rebuke Trump promises to travel to Alaska to campaign against Murkowski Indigenous leadership is a linchpin to solving environmental crises MORE (D-N.M.)  will begin serving as representatives in Congress. Hopefully their presence will counteract, perhaps even provide a living rebuke, to how non-Native Americans already interact with Native Americans in the Capitol Building.

In some respects, the Capitol building is a reminder that relations between colonial settlers and Native Americans were of great importance to the country for centuries. Today, Native American interests are often treated as tangential to larger political struggles, but you would not know that from looking at the artwork in the Capitol. Native Americans are everywhere. There are too many depictions to list here. But a couple stand out.


One, a sandstone relief, depicts a white man with a long rifle struggling with a Native American figure, whose facial features are reminiscent of Wes Studi’s character Magua in Last of the Mohicans. Another relief shows an Native American figure holding out corn and kneeling before an erect European standing on the brow of a boat. When I ask students to identify the subject matter of these sculptures, most students recognize the landing of the pilgrims but struggle to identify Daniel Boone. What is perhaps most interesting is how these reliefs capture the two extremes of how America imagines Native American: as savage, almost inhuman, on the one hand, and as low and supplicant on the other.

But no Native American captures the American imagination as much as Pocahontas. Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest overall athlete of the 20th century, barely registers in the nation’s consciousness anymore. But Pocahontas is different.

Just as there are two Disney Pocahontas movies, the Capitol Rotunda features two giant works depicting Pocahontas. In one, a sculpted relief, Pocahontas is show rushing to save John Smith from being beaten to death by two Native Americans, one holding what appears to be a mace. In another, an enormous painting on the main floor of the Rotunda, shows Pocahontas, dressed in white, being baptized. Together these artworks present an idealized version of white-Native American relations following contact, as well as an imagined history of Matoaka, Powhatan’s daughter that glosses over her captivity and early death. 

Davids and Haaland likely will pass by these depictions, and others, while working in the Capitol. And while their votes on legislation arguable matter more than their symbolism, it is worth pausing and reflecting on the space that Davids and Haaland are entering. Though Native American depictions are prevalent in the U.S. Capitol, they hardly provide support for viewing Native Americans as equals or for viewing Indian nations as independent sovereigns.

Washington, D.C., of course, is more than just the U.S. Capitol. The National Museum of the American Indian offers visitors multiple lens through which to understand Native Americans. The Nation to Nation exhibit should perhaps be part of the orientation for all members of Congress and, for those of us who get hungry for fry bread, the museum café is one of the few options available in D.C. But as Davids and Haaland surely know, even well-intentioned museums cannot capture the richness of Native American communities today.

One of my favorite political cartoons appeared in The New Yorker in 1956. It shows a white woman in a hat looking through a door at a Native American family eating at the table and exclaiming, “Oh, I beg your pardon! I thought you were extinct.” What is great about this comic is it captures how many non-Native Americans view tribes. Davids and Haaland, just by existing and winning a seat in Congress, are challenging the narrative that conquest is purely historical and that Native Americans cannot contribute to the future of the United States.

One of the most damaging lies we tell schoolchildren (and even many law students) is that there are but two types of sovereigns in the United States: states and the federal government. The nations that originally occupied and controlled the land that would become the United States are entirely ignored by such an accounting, their place in our political environment white-washed away.

Fortunately, as a legal matter, tribal self-determination is the official policy. In 1831, Chief Justice John Marshall described tribes as “domestic dependent nations,” a characterization that has stood the test of time. Native American nations are situated within and alongside state and federal sovereigns, but that does not mean tribes are not sovereign.

The election of both Davids and Haaland is tremendously exciting and overdue. In 1835, the United States signed a treaty with the Cherokee Nation providing them a right to a congressional delegate. This election does not fulfill that independent treaty right, but it did allow the country to take a step, or two, in the right direction. Tribal sovereignty matters, Indian nations are here to stay, and Native Americans contribute in countless ways to the development of the larger sovereign.

Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.