by NAT Staff
“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. This historic movement will not go by without the acknowledgement of the many people who have believed in me over the years and have had the confidence in me for this position.”
President Biden’s choice of Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM), a member of the Pueblo Laguna Tribe with Jemez Pueblo heritage, as our nation’s new Secretary of the Interior is the latest chapter in a life devoted to service and speaking on behalf of Native peoples.
Born in Winslow, Arizona, Haaland grew up in a military family with a father, Major J.D. “Dutch” Haaland, who served 30 years as a Marine and was awarded the Silver Star Medal for saving six lives during the Vietnam War. Her mother, Mary Troya, is a Navy veteran who worked 25 years in Indian education.
The family moved constantly and Haaland, an “army brat,” attended 13 public schools before settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was no stranger to poverty and sacrifice and after graduating from high school, she worked at a bakery and sometimes had to rely on people for shelter as she could not afford to pay rent. But she persevered and continued on to earn an English undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico, where she graduated law school.
Haaland (in white dress) with her family in early years.
As a single mom, Haaland raised her daughter, Somáh, who is a poet, performer and activist.
The Secretary of the Interior is a marathon runner and known to be an avid reader of non-fiction.
Beginning her professional career as a businesswoman, Haaland ran a small enterprise producing and canning Pueblo Salsa before becoming the first Chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, overseeing business operations of the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico. She also served as Tribal Administrator for the San Felipe Pueblo and worked as a service provider for adults with developmental disabilities.
After attending a unique educational program created by Emerge New Mexico which helps train Democratic women to run for political office, Haaland became the Native American Caucus Chair for the Democratic Party of New Mexico and the Native American vote director for Organizing for America NM. After an unsuccessful run for New Mexico Lieutenant Governor in 2014, the 35th generation New Mexican became the first Native American woman elected to lead a State Party.
In 2016, Haaland traveled to Standing Rock to take part in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that sought to protect tribal sovereignty and vital natural resources. She launched that advocacy to new heights in 2018 when she was elected to Congress, where she won reelection last year.
In the House of Representatives, Haaland has advanced a number of issues, including tribal water infrastructure, climate resiliency, job growth and broadband deployment. She is known to have been extraordinarily active, serving on a multitude of committees, including Chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands and Vice Chair of Families and Children Living in Poverty, and Natural Resources. Other subcommittee assignments were Armed Services, Military Personnel, and Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
Her caucus participation included: Air Force, Peace Corps, Equality, Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence, Women’s Issues, Cannabis, Congressional Human Trafficking, Hunger, Labor and Working Families, Maternity, Multicultural Media, Safe Climate, TB Elimination, and Women's Working Group on Immigration Reform and the Native American Caucus (Co-Chair).
When first elected to Congress, Rep. Haaland was selected as the Freshman Class Representative to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. In leadership, she served as the Region VI Whip (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona).
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet Secretary or at the head of the Department of the Interior. As our country faces the impacts of climate change and environmental injustice, the Interior has a role and I will be a partner in addressing these challenges by protecting our public lands and moving our country towards a clean energy future.”
Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) were the sole Republicans on the Senate Energy Committee who voted to advance her nomination to full Senate vote. Murkowski was under pressure to approve the congresswoman’s nomination from Alaska’s Native communities, who comprise nearly 20% of the state’s population. During her two days of hearings, Republicans on the committee pressed Haaland on her statements that were critical of fossil fuels and on the Administration’s Executive Orders pausing new federal drilling leases and cancelling a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
As Secretary of the Interior, Haaland will help reverse many of the former Administration’s environmental practices which negatively affected tribal communities and public lands. Those practices resulted in the destruction of sacred sites during border wall construction and opening federally protected lands to drilling and mining, examples being the Dakota Access Pipeline and Bears Mountain National Monument.
She will also play a pivotal role in advancing Biden’s climate agenda. The Administration plans to end carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 and proposes public investment in green infrastructure, including $2 trillion for clean energy projects. As the Vice Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Haaland is well familiarized with these technologies and sciences and ready to make positive change on a national level.
There are currently four Native American tribal members in Congress. They are: Tom Cole (Chickasaw), Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), MarkWayne Mullin (Cherokee) and Yvette Herrell (Cherokee).
Identified by Time Magazine as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” Tom Cole is serving his tenth term. Rep. Cole was appointed to the Rules Committee in 2013 and has remained on the distinguished panel since then. He has presided on the powerful House Appropriations Committee since 2009 as Vice Ranking Member and is Ranking Member and former Chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. Among his leadership positions, Rep. Cole is Co-Chair of the Native American Caucus and Deputy Whip for the Republic Conference. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2017.
Rep. Davids is a member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Vice Chair of its Subcommittee on Aviation. Other subcommittee assignments include Highways and Transit, Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Economic Growth, Tax and Capital Access, and Innovation and Workforce Development. She is part of the Congressional Native American Caucus and, in leadership, a Democratic Regional Whip for Region 4 (Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas).
Rep. Mullin sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and three Subcommittees -- Oversight and Investigations, Environment and Climate Change, and Health. He holds the distinction of being Co-Chair of five caucuses -- Native American, Indian Health Service Task Force, Innovation, Men’s Health, and Regulatory Review. He additionally serves on the House Energy Action Team and the non-partisan House Democracy Partnership, which creates alliances with nations across the globe to promote democracy.
A freshman in Congress, Herrell won the November election and took office on January 3, 2021. She campaigned on a stronger U.S. border, supporting small businesses, fighting government regulations, and opposing legislation that impedes Second Amendment rights. While a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives for eight years, Herrell sponsored a bill that banned late-term abortion with exceptions for sexual abuse, rape or incest and opposed the Affordable Care Act in favor of free market solutions. She is an advocate for improving water rights, private property rights, and the management of public lands.
It’s no surprise that Biden’s selection of Haaland was praised by Native American groups and community leaders across the nation. From Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians, “The centuries of invisibility of American Indian and Alaska Native people are fading as our best and brightest emerge into prominent positions of leadership.” Those sentiments were echoed by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez who cheered, “Truly a historic and unprecedented day for all Indigenous people.” Ashley Nicole McCray, an environmentalist and member of the Absentee Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, foresees an optimistic future shared by many, “There’s a feeling something is changing. Finally, we’ve come to this point where Indigenous sentiment is no longer being silenced.”
About the U.S. Department of the Interior
The Interior Department upholds the federal government's responsibilities to the country's 574 federally recognized Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages. Its roughly 70,000-person staff manages one-fifth of all land in the United States including national parks, wildlife refuges, 1.7 billion acres of coastlines and other public lands.