In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, two Democrats set out to make history. Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas, ran to become the first Native American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

As their campaigns gained momentum, they received support from an unlikely ally: a super PAC.

Unlike many corporate super political action committees (PACs) that bundle donations to advance the policy goals of an industry, however, the group backing Haaland and Davids’ campaigns, 7Gen Leaders, receives most of its funding from tribal governments. Filings with the Federal Election Commission show donations from the Cherokee Nation, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in California and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Washington state among many others.

7Gen Leaders was founded in early 2018 with the aim of bringing more Native Americans into elected office.

“There are not enough Native American faces in leadership positions,” said Mellor Willie, 7Gen Leaders’ director, who noted that numerous organizations like the Latino Victory Fund already exist to help support minority candidates. The group threw its support behind Haaland in the Democratic primary and Davids in the general election, running ads that highlighted both candidates’ progressive agendas and personal stories.

It worked. Both Haaland and Davids, the only two candidates 7Gen Leaders backed in 2018, won their races, and the group is hoping for a repeat in 2020.

“Right now we're the only Native independent expenditure organization that's been lasting beyond just one race,” Mellor said. “We’ve been able to build an infrastructure that Native candidates can use with the knowledge that we will be there to support them — if they have a good campaign — for the future.”

Willie, a member of the Navajo Nation from the Oljato-Monument Valley area in Utah’s San Juan County, co-founded 7Gen Leaders in 2018, but he said the project is an extension of the work he has been doing his whole adult life.

“I have always wanted to fight for the rights of Native people and especially for those people that are underserved and unrecognized,” Willie said, adding that he previously worked as a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation and has been involved with numerous political campaigns related to Indian Country.

Willie’s mother was born in Westwater, a small community built on land owned by the Navajo Nation just outside of Blanding, which still lacks running water and electricity. His parents worked jobs across the Four Corners while Willie was growing up, but he thinks back on several years he spent in Blanding while he was in elementary and middle school as a particularly formative experience. It was a place where, even at a young age, he recognized deep racial disparities.

“When we moved to Blanding, [I encountered a] mentality that, ‘Oh, you’re just an Indian, you’re not going to be able to succeed, or you’re limited in your abilities,'” Willie said.

Willie recalled an instance where his mom, who worked as a youth counselor in the school system, noticed that no Navajo or Ute children were being cast in the high school production of Oklahoma! When she asked why, she was told that it was because the Native children couldn’t afford suitable costumes.

In response she spent days at the sewing machine, and thanks to her efforts, Native students were allowed in the play. “They had the best outfits,” Willie said.

The example, according to Willie, "underscores the way that this institutional racism exists in San Juan County. There’s just this basic thought that Navajos are second-class citizens.”

The problem is not unique to San Juan County, he emphasized; it exists in many towns that border tribal lands where racist modes of thinking can run so deep they become difficult for nonnative people to see. Native Americans account for more than a quarter of the population in Blanding, for example, but there has never been a Native member of the city council.

“I went to school with a lot of the people who may not share the same views that I have,” Willie said. “I played basketball with them. I went to Boy Scouts with them. I went to church with them… [Nonnatives] were neighbors and they were brothers and sisters. But because there has been such a long history of institutional racism, their worldview and paradigm has not always allowed for the belief that Navajos can actually make a difference.”

One way to push back on those biases is to see Native people in leadership positions, Willie said, adding he’s glad that the same 2018 election that brought Haaland and Davids to Congress also brought in San Juan County’s first majority-Navajo commission thanks to a prolonged voting rights lawsuit.

The new commissioners moved quickly to announce their support for Bears Ears National Monument, a dramatic reversal from the county’s previous position, and to improve road conditions on the Navajo Nation. And for Willie, those changes are accompanied by an additional benefit: they encouraged much-needed dialogue.

“Making sure that we have leadership that represents all of the county is important and an initial stepping stone to get us to the larger conversation,” he said. “Otherwise, we always silence those people that have opposition to us. We shouldn't be silencing anyone. We should be working towards finding solutions that help everyone.”

Willie has seen how Haaland and Davids have already begun to push new conversations in Congress. Both lawmakers have focused on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, a pivotal issue for 7Gen Leaders.

“The numbers out there are atrocious,” Willie said. “The fact that most Native American women have been impacted by some kind of sexual violence is crazy.”

In a conference call with reporters in June, Haaland argued that representation is key to addressing the epidemic of violence.

"Right now it's almost like nobody knows how to deal with this issue, and that's one of the reasons why it's been kicked aside for so long," she said. "Congress has never had a voice like mine, a Native American woman who sees the blind spots that have existed for far too long. That's why I've been working on multiple bills and legislation to address this crisis."

7Gen Leaders hasn’t yet announced support for anyone in 2020, but Willie said the group will be looking for candidates who can be an ally to Haaland and Davids in that fight and others. The organizing principle of the group, along with its name, comes from what Willie refers to as the “pan-Indian belief” that leaders should make decisions with the next seven generations in mind.

“When we review candidates, we let them know that’s what we promote,” he said. “[We want to ensure] they are really making wise, prudent decisions in their policy positions’ impacts on future generations.”

And Willie believes that Native children who see Native leaders and lawmakers in office will more likely to pursue those roles themselves.

“One of our tag lines is, ‘Where we step, our children will follow,’” he said. “We are paving the road for new leaders so that other Native American people, should they want to run for office, have a way to do that.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.