Excluded from many discussions of race and ethnicity in the United States are the Native caretakers of this land. That is changing with the nomination of Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., as Interior Secretary. It is a watershed moment in the tortured history of relations between the U.S. government and indigenous peoples.
An enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, Haaland’s confirmation means that for the first time in nearly 250 years, Native Americans will be represented at the Cabinet level. Haaland, who assumed office in 2019, is the 20th Native American ever elected to Congress, and only the second Native woman.
While the symbolism of Haaland’s nomination is powerful, her appointment as Interior Secretary is far more than emblematic, as the department oversees nearly one-fifth of U.S. territory. The department has an especially powerful impact on indigenous peoples, maintaining government-to-government relations with 574 federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native tribal entities. The department is also responsible for taking tribal territory — including broad swaths of sacred land — into and out of trust.
If Haaland is appointed, the Department of the Interior will no longer be able to ignore its mandated obligations under the Federal Trust Responsibility — a legal doctrine originating from nearly 400 treaties that the U.S. government signed with Indian Tribes, and which is memorialized by Supreme Court precedent. With President Joe Biden’s long-overdue effort to recognize and center indigenous knowledge in broader U.S. policy, greater fulfillment of the department’s purpose is certain to benefit us all. “We all have a stake in the future of our country,” Haaland affirmed in her opening statement to the Senate, “and I believe that every one of us, Republicans, Democrats and independents, shares a common bond, our love for the outdoors, and a desire and obligation to keep our nation livable for future generations.”
At her confirmation hearing, Haaland was accompanied by her mother — a Pueblo Navy veteran who worked for a quarter century at the Bureau of Indian Education. Haaland’s father, the descendent of an immigrant family, was a Marine veteran who received the Silver Star and rests at Arlington National Cemetery. The family’s history of service resonated in Haaland’s explanation of her motive for wanting to lead the department: “It’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land, and I feel that every indigenous person in this country understands that, which is why we have such a high rate of our people who serve in the military. We want to protect this country, and that means protecting it in every single way.”
As a congresswoman, Haaland brought awareness to issues that American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples face disproportionately. As a Pueblo woman, she was uniquely positioned to advocate for legislation addressing missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, restoring tribal languages intentionally destroyed by U.S. Indian Laws, and establishing a truth and healing commission regarding the government’s genocidal Indian Boarding School Policy. Appearing before Congress in traditional Pueblo clothing, Haaland’s presence alone is evidence of Native resistance to colonial oppression.
In addition to her intense awareness of the interconnected wellbeing of Native communities and land in the United States, Haaland has demonstrated leadership in fostering understanding of the plight of indigenous peoples worldwide, many of whom continue to suffer devastating incursions into their homelands. In March 2019, Haaland hosted a delegation of Brazilian indigenous women to Washington, including attorney Joênia Wapichana, the first Native woman elected to the Brazilian Congress. Haaland and Wapichana called for North-South solidarity in addressing the harmful policies and rhetoric of the Trump and Bolsonaro governments. As they wrote in the Washington Post, “Either we fight for the human rights of our people or we stand to lose everything.”
Appointing Debra Haaland, a leader with a lifetime of personal and professional experience working in and alongside indigenous communities, is a meaningful step in building more equitable representation for Native and non-Native peoples alike — in Florida, across the United States and around the world.
The authors are all part of the Native American and Global Indigenous Studies (NAGIS) initiative, which the University of Miami has funded as part of an institutional re-commitment to promote social equity through research, teaching and service
Tracy Devine Guzmán is associate professor of Latin American Studies, executive committee member for the U.S. Network for Democracy in Brazil, and co-convener of the NAGIS Working Group.
Caroline LaPorte is a descendant of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, an attorney working in Indian country and a founding member of the NAGIS Working Group.
William J. Pestle is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, director of the Latin American Studies Program and co-convener of the NAGIS Working Group.