It's been a long time coming. The election of two Native American women to Congress in the United States after their midterm election last November.

That's a first for Native American women. They are both Democrats: Sharice Davids, a member of Wisconsin's Ho-Chunk Nation won in Kansas' 3rd Congressional District, and Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo won in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District.

Why has it taken so long? Not surprising really. Native Americans have been pretty much invisible in many parts of the United States.

They told me this themselves when I had the opportunity to travel throughout the United States in 1990, spending time with many tribal (band) leaders, mostly on their reservations.


Read more: Merepeka Raukawa-Tait: DHBs have a tough job
Opinion - Merepeka Raukawa-Tait: Every city needs big dreamers
Merepeka Raukawa-Tait: Male bystanders can be a force for change

I enjoyed the experience but it was glaringly obvious that Native Americans, particularly those living on reservations, had been largely ignored and forgotten.

They told me they were treated like second-class citizens by their government and by those whose job it was to provide support, encouragement and opportunities for them to reach their potential to become fully contributing members of society. The very support provided to other Americans.

Inequity was alive and well.

This must be one of the main reasons there was no love lost, certainly at that time that I observed between Native Americans and the United States government.

Mind you it could also have been because of their forced removal to other states away from their homelands the century before, or the devaluing and loss of their customs and language or the taking of thousands of children from their parents and placing them in selected schools or with white families to ensure the "native" would disappear from their DNA over time.

The support they received in 1990 was welfare and that was about it. Long-term dependency on welfare had eventually led to hopelessness and despair.

I saw first-hand the dilapidated state of many reservations with poor housing, inadequate school buildings and meagre health services.


There had been only minimal investment in reservation infrastructure. I saw excessive alcohol drinking, even among schoolchildren, and there was shocking sexual abuse and violence against women.

The leaders I met were completely open in sharing what they experienced daily. All was laid bare.

On the reservations Native Americans were "out of sight out of mind". But in most instances where hopelessness is embedded, you will find committed leaders stepping up attempting to turn the tide. No matter how overwhelming the problems appear.

In Portland, Oregon I spent a week with 70 leaders from many states who were elected and mandated by their band members to identify ways to improve their lives.

I couldn't see where they were going to start. They told me they believed it would take at least 100 years for them to achieve their long-held aspiration to return to sovereign nation status with full treaty rights.

The damage done was intergenerational and could only be fixed over a number of generations.

The women leaders in particular seemed to be clear about the massive work ahead of them and wanted to work and concentrate on areas such as safety in the home for women and children, reintroducing band history and telling their own stories in schools, revitalising their language and customs and restoring lost pride in themselves and their reservations.

When I first heard they had set themselves a "realistic" timeframe of around 100 years I thought they must be dreaming.

Who plans that far out? Well, they already have 30 years under their belt by now. And positive changes are being achieved.

I have kept up with various social and economic initiatives bands have introduced and when visiting the United States in 2015 I could see the steady progress being made.

I have also hosted a number of Native American leaders here in New Zealand over the last five years so we can share some of our Whanau Ora success stories.

But political participation has been a hard nut to crack.

So the election of the two women to Congress will bring passionate voices to articulate the concerns of the people they represent.

Very different voices to those that have always been there.

Last year a record number of Native Americans ran for office in local, state and senate elections.

They made a concerted effort to encourage band members to "get out and vote".

Growing activism on reservations have demanded equal access to quality health and social services and fair and just treatment by police and courts.

Even from their own reservation police officers.

Calls for work and job training to break the cycle of poverty they have been trapped in for decades are growing louder.

The two new Congresswomen are known for their forthright views.

They know what's at stake if nothing changes. The tide is turning, and not before time.