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When Mary Lyons, a Leech Lake Ojibwe great-grandmother, watched the new U.S. Secretary of the Interior being sworn in, tears filled her eyes.
Lyons noted the traditional regalia worn by Deb Haaland in March as she became the first Native American to lead a federal cabinet agency. Haaland's clothing included a royal blue skirt decorated with rainbow ribbons and an embroidered cornstalk, representing Haaland's native pueblo. Haaland, who is leading the agency responsible for most federal land and natural resources, wore moccasins. Her choice of attire for the ceremony was significant to many Native people, including Lyons.
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"I never thought I would witness anything like this,” says Lyons of Rosemount, Minnesota. “As Haaland stepped into a world that is not of our own, she did not take her moccasins off — she wore them with such honor as she brought along her ancestors and all her people from many tribes across Turtle Island” — where tradition says many Indigenous tribes originated.
Haaland, a former New Mexico congresswoman, is being lauded by members of the Native American community, who have high hopes for her leadership and have watched her put her own stamp on the role from the start. As the 54th U.S. secretary of the interior, Haaland is at the helm of the federal agency that oversees, among others, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her new role is one that inspires many in the Native community but also brings hope that Haaland will prioritize protecting the environment and promoting economic opportunities for Indigenous people, and will deeply understand the concerns of the community.
"Her confirmation helps us, as Native people, understand that there are no limits, especially in this time period that we are in,” says Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, 57, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe and the director of grantmaking for the NDN Collective, an advocacy group for Indigenous people based in Rapid City, South Dakota. “As we are experiencing climate change, now more than ever, the world needs to understand and embrace Indigenous ways of knowing and being with our planet.”