Fierce for the Planet: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland
Debra Haaland is making American history again. The former congresswoman from New Mexico is now Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history and head of the government department that’s responsible for the nation’s land and natural resources.
Haaland can trace her ancestry back 35 generations on the land that much more recently became New Mexico. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo, one of 574 sovereign tribal nations located across 35 states. The Pueblo people have lived on the land that is now the state of New Mexico since the 1200s.
“Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce,” Haaland says. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet and all of our protected land, and I’m honored and ready to serve.”
Haaland has always been fierce. In fact, she used “Be Fierce” as her campaign slogan when she first ran for office. She was born in Winslow, Arizona, in 1960, to Mary Toya, a Native American women and U.S. Navy veteran, and J.D. Haaland, a Norwegian American veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a recipient of the Silver Star for his courageous actions in Vietnam.
“My grandmother and grandfather moved to Winslow, Arizona, to work on the railroad as part of the assimilation policies of our US government back in the early 1900s,” Haaland says. “My grandmother used to clean diesel train engines with a bucket of kerosene and a brush. She worked the midnight shift and kept the trains in Winslow, Arizona, running on time. I feel like I come from this long line of very strong women: my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my mom. I hopefully will make my mother and my grandmother proud.”
Haaland worked her way through law school as a single mother by starting a company that sold salsa. At times she was on food stamps and had to stay with friends. After earning a law degree in 2006, she became the first chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors. As chairwoman, she oversaw business operations for the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico and successfully advocated for earth-friendly business practices. In 2018, with Sharice Davids of Kansas, she became one of the first two Native women in Congress.
In Congress, Haaland took on two leadership roles in the committee for National Resources: vice chair of the committee and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. She also served on the Armed Services Committee.
Her leadership of the Department of Interior also includes overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency of the Department of the Interior that manages millions of acres of land held in trust by the federal government for Native American tribes. According to the 2010 census, 5.2 million people, or about 2% of the US population, identifies as Native American.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of the Interior,” she tweeted after her nomination. “It’s profound to think about the history of this country’s policies to exterminate Native Americans and the resilience of our ancestors that gave me a place here today.”
Representation and diversity matter, Haaland says, because life experiences shape political decisions. “We don’t need people who all have the same perspective, we need people from various parts of the country, who’ve been raised in different ways, who bring that history and culture with them, and employ what we’ve learned from their parents and grandparents and bring all of that to bear in the decisions that we make,” she said in an interview with the Guardian.
Haaland has brought symbols of her culture to Washington. At her swearing in as interior secretary, she wore a ribbon skirt made by Agnes Woodward, a Plains Cree dressmaker from Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan. Woodward spent weeks creating the garment — a long, blue skirt with rainbow-colored ribbons, applique butterflies, stars, and a cornstalk to represent Haaland's membership with the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Ribbon skirts originated with Plains Indian Tribes, when ribbon was bartered through trade. At the inauguration she wore traditional moccasins and a ribbon skirt hand-made by 19-year-old Bella Aiukli Cornell of Choctaw Nation.
Deb also brings a profound respect for the land to her role overseeing one-fifth of all the land in the United States, including national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, coastline waters and the lands natural resources such as gas, oil and water.
A shift in priorities at the interior department could have major implications for global warming because about one-quarter of all US carbon emissions come from fossil fuels extracted on public lands, according to the US Geological Survey.
Earlier this year before her cabinet nomination, Haaland sponsored a bill that would set a national goal of protecting 30% of US lands and oceans by 2030, a target that has been adopted by the Biden administration as a priority for his environmental agenda.
Recently she approved offshore wind development off the northern and central coasts of California, which could add 4.6 GW of clean energy to the grid, enough to power 1.6 million homes.
“I believe that a clean energy future is within our grasp in the United States, but it will take all of us and the best-available science to make it happen,” she said. “The offshore wind industry has the potential to create tens of thousands of good-paying union jobs across the nation, while combating the negative effects of climate change.”
Haaland said her priorities as secretary of the interior are fighting climate change, tribal consultation and driving a green economic recovery forward. “With indigenous knowledge, the world can usher in a new era of peace, justice and strong institutions to meet this moment and move our planet toward a more sustainable future,” she said.
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