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'It's Overdue': Indian Country Applauds Nomination of Haaland To Lead Interior

If confirmed by the Senate, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland will be the nation's first Indigenous cabinet secretary.
The office of U.S. House Rep. Deb Haaland
If confirmed by the Senate, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland will be the nation's first Indigenous cabinet secretary.

Soon after she was elected as one of America's first Indigenous congresswomen in 2018, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland paid a visit to her constituents at the Pueblo of Sandia, just outside of Albuquerque. 

"She came to the Pueblo for one of our feast days," said Stephine Poston, a tribal citizen and advocate for Native women leadership. "And the young girls, a couple of them were following her around and she stopped to talk to them. It was an amazing thing to see and witness." 

Poston said Haaland may as well have been a celebrity to those girls, but she didn't act like one. 

"She's just that person who will stop and see you," Poston said. 

And she said that's how Pueblo people, and Indigenous people across the country, have been feeling since Haaland was nominated to lead the Department of the Interior: Seen.

"Indian Country has shouted from the valleys and from the mountaintops that it's time. It's overdue," Poston said. 

Haaland comes from the Pueblos of Laguna and Jemez. If she is confirmed by the Senate, she will be the nation's first Indigenous cabinet secretary. In a speech accepting the nomination, Haaland spoke about the Interior Department's anti-Indigenous and genocidal legacy. 

"This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the Interior once proclaimed his goal to quote, 'civilize or exterminate' us," Haaland said, referring to an 1851 remark by Alexander H. H. Stuart. "I'm a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology." 

In more recent history, the degree to which the federal government has respected and upheld its nation-to-nation relationship with tribes has varied wildly. 

"Some administrations have been more supportive than others. Some have been much worse," said John Echohawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund. "[Federal Indian policy] kind of swings back and forth, and you never really know which way it will go." 

Regardless of their political party, he said federal officials, including secretaries of the Interior, consistently lack a baseline understanding of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. 

"That lack of knowledge of Indian law and policy and history is the biggest problem our people face," he said. 

Echohawk called Haaland's nomination a "historic event," not only because of her lived experience with tribal issues, but because she has a specialized degree in Indian law and significant experience crafting federal Indian policy. 

"It makes all the difference in the world. She thoroughly understands these issues – thoroughly. And she knows what it means to tribes and tribal members to have good decisions made regarding their rights," Echohawk said. 

Echohawk said many tribes are currently locked in battles over the status of their land, or over the protection of their sacred sites. Haaland has been vocal about these issues as vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. 

In February of this year, Haaland confronted a representative from President Donald Trump's Interior Department about the controlled blasting and bulldozing of a site sacred to the Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona, which was carried out to make way for a section of the border wall. 

"A sacred site that's been blasted, it can never be made whole again. I want you to understand that," she said. "Ancestors put those things in the ground with care and love and tradition and prayers. Those can never be regained again." 

She questioned how members of the Trump administration could sleep at night after authorizing the destruction, particularly without consulting Tohono O'odham leadership. 

"The damage that this administration is doing to this area is irreparable, and you didn't even ask. Nobody asked permission of these people to do any of that," Haaland said. 

Tribal leaders are ready to hold Haaland to her word about tribal consultation. That includes Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Jordan Dresser, who learned of her nomination on the same day that his tribe received its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

"I'm just really excited for her. It feels like another glimmer of hope for us," Dresser said. 

The Northern Arapaho Tribe relies heavily on revenue from oil and gas production on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Haaland is a supporter of the Green New Deal and other policy efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Dresser says that for tribes like his, her nomination could prompt mixed emotions. 

"For a lot of tribes that do rely on oil and gas, it could be almost seen as a gamble. But in a way it's like this is another tool for us," he said. 

In other words, an opportunity for tribes to transition to alternative energy. Dresser already has big plans to diversify the Northern Arapaho economy, and hopes Haaland's Interior Department will provide support. 

Haaland will take on the role under a president who has released a comprehensive and ambitious plan for tribal nations. Carrying out its stated goals, including remedying chronic budget shortfalls within services promised to tribes in treaties, won't be easy without support from lawmakers in Congress. She may also face roadblocks restoring tribal land bases, limiting fossil fuel extraction on public lands, and addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, among other initiatives tribal leaders are expecting her to take on.

April Tinhorn and her daughter Zoey with New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland.
Credit Native Women Lead
April Tinhorn and her daughter Zoey with New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland.

For now, Dresser says the symbolic power of her nomination is enough to make Indian Country celebrate. "If a kid sees someone that looks like them and sounds like them in certain positions, they know it's a possibility. So to me, it's a huge win. And it's going to inspire a whole generation of Indigenous youth," Dresser said. 

Stephine Polson draws inspiration from Haaland's personal story of perseverance. Haaland raised her child as a single mom. She's experienced homelessness and food insecurity. She earned her bachelor's degree in her 30s, graduated from law school in her 40s, and began her formal political career in her 50s. During her first term in Congress, Haaland was still paying off student loans

Poston says it's rare for people with those experiences to see their stories reflected in the highest levels of government. 

"You tell your kids, 'You can be an astronaut. You can be anything you want to be,' and in your heart you totally believe that, and you know they have it in them. But the obstacles are so enormous," Poston said. Haaland, she said, has proved it can happen. "And so she's our congresswoman, she's our astronaut, she's [proof] that you can really overcome some of the most challenging circumstances." 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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