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First Native American Cabinet Secretary Makes Her Mark

U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland including Native people in the conversation

spinner image Deb Haaland, U.S. secretary of the interior, speaks during a news conference in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, April 23, 2021.
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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.”

Reflecting Native American values

Haaland, 60, who was sworn in March 18, rose from poverty to earn a seat at the table in Washington politics. She grew up in a military family and moved often as a child. Later she became a single mother just after earning a college degree in 1994 from the University of New Mexico. To support her daughter, Haaland started a salsa company, but she struggled financially, was occasionally homeless, and had to rely on friends and family for support.

Haaland later earned a degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law, then became active in Democratic Party politics, including serving as New Mexico's state party chair. When she was elected to Congress in 2018, she became one of the first two Native American women ever to win a seat the U.S. House.

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"Secretary Haaland overcame so many obstacles to get where she is today,” says Levi Rickert, 65, editor for Native News Online, a digital publication based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi. Haaland, he says, “is a role model for our children who may feel the odds are stacked against them.”

spinner image Deb Haaland, U.S. secretary of the interior, second left, reacts during a swearing in ceremon
Deb Haaland, U.S. secretary of the interior, center, takes an oath during a ceremony with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, March 18, 2021.
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Many Native people also hope that because Haaland is a Pueblo woman, she will bring insight unlike any other interior secretary, and will recognize Indigenous people's relationship with the land, which plays a significant role in tribal identity and culture. Her understanding of these issues will help her navigate questions around tribal sovereignty — the right of Native people to govern themselves — and treaties for protecting sacred places and other lands and waters.

Those efforts have already begun. On April 8, Haaland visited Bear Ears National Monument in southern Utah, a site important to tribal cultural heritage and that Native advocates are working to protect. While she was there, Haaland met with state and tribal leaders.

"My grandkids are really excited to know that a Native woman has taken a position that could mean more protection for sacred sites, water and Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth in Lakota),” said Mnicoujou Lakota Jean Roach, 60, of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Navigating complicated issues

In addition to a focus on environmental protections, tribal leaders say Haaland has a deep understanding of tribes’ economic stresses, thereby eliminating the learning curve that past interior secretaries have faced. The relationship between tribes and the federal government and land use is complicated and multifaceted.

"By having Haaland at the helm, there will be instant understanding of those complexities and will welcome dialogue from tribes on solutions to make Indian lands more prosperous for Native people,” says Loren Birdrattler, 49, of Browning, Montana, an adviser on Indian trust lands and a Blackfeet tribal member.

"She's already way ahead in good will and intentions,” says Suzan Shown Harjo, 75, who is Cheyenne and Muscogee and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service to Native people. “She needs to ignore the quick fix and make nuanced and fulsome decisions."

Darren Thompson is a contributing writer who covers Native American issues, culture and politics. He writes for several Native American publications, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on National Public Radio.

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