Deb Haaland became the first Native American Interior Secretary when the Senate confirmed her in March 2021.
According to NPR, the appointment was symbolic and historic because the Interior Department was long used as a “tool of oppression against America’s Indigenous peoples.”
For the first time, a Native American would be responsible for relations between the US government and Native American tribes. Also, Haaland would manage public lands, protect endangered species and natural resources.
In 2018, Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas, became the first Native American women to serve in Congress. In her victory speech, Haaland said:
“70 years ago, Native Americans right here in New Mexico couldn’t vote,” she said. “Can you believe that? Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household and as a 35th generation New Mexican, I never imagined a world where I would be represented by someone who looks like me,” Haaland said.
In 1924, Native Americans became US citizens and only gained the right to vote in some states in 1948.
See her victory speech via KOAT:
Missing and Murdered Native Americans
Two weeks after being sworn in, Haaland announced the Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs office of justice services.
Finally, the unit would address an epidemic of violence and the disappearance of over 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native people across the US. Furthermore, the MMU would help in cases of thousands of murders reported to the federal government.
In some cases, the families of victims said the cases were disregarded by law enforcement.
“Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades,” Haaland said in a statement. “Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated.”
With the MMU, Deb Haaland called for “all hands on deck” to investigate missing persons and murders.
“Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands-on deck,” Haaland said. “We are fully committed to assisting Tribal communities with these investigations, and the MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force-multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations.”
How Deb Haaland Got Started
First, to have the chance to give Native Americans “a voice at the table” in Congress, Haaland started out volunteering. For example, she volunteered to make phone calls for other campaigns. From there, she became a grassroots community organizer, businesswoman, and Native American advocate.
Eventually, Haaland decided to run for office, becoming the first Native American woman on a major party ticket to run for Lieutenant Governor in 2014. Although she didn’t win, she was later elected the New Mexico NM Democratic Party State Chair. As such, she became the first Native American State Party Chair in US history.
“I really want other Native women to know that you don’t have to have heavy political connections to serve your community,” Haaland said. “You can volunteer, you can work hard and have opportunities to represent your community.”
Ultimately, with help from her own volunteers, she won her bid for Congress.
See Haaland discuss the MMU on Democracy Now!:
Who Speaks for You?
In a 2016 TEDx Talk, Deb Haaland reflected on what it means to see other women of color elected to public office. Thanks to the efforts of her ancestors and countless others, she could run for office. In the recent past, her mother and grandmother could not do what she’s doing now.
“Who speaks for you? Would it be easier for you to find someone who speaks for you if more women of color were elected to public office?”
Now representing America, she has learned what it means to be a role model for those looking for a voice.
“As a first Native American to lead a state political party in our country and a former statewide candidate, I learned what it meant to be a Native woman candidate when few role models existed,” she continued.
Then, Haaland called for people to “sing in unison” to address problems like greed, suicide, and drug addiction.
“My people, all our people need a voice. There’s too much drug addiction, too much teen suicide, too many oil companies willing to disrespect the sovereignty of tribal nations,” she said. “There’s too much at stake and more of us need to sing in unison.”
Diverse Voices Rise to Meet Challenges
To Haaland, diverse voices must reflect the community to confront and resolve challenges.
“The needs of our society are answered when those who have the power to make decisions have the ability to see what you see,” she said. “Your struggles must be theirs, so too your sorrows and your joys. Diversity yields unique perspectives which might be all a community needs to answer its greatest challenges.”
Today, Haaland calls on everyone to do their part to help diverse voices win elections.
“Your voice and your actions matter,” she said.
See her moving Tedx Talk below:
Tackling Pandemic and Climate Crisis
Recently, Haaland issued a new Secretarial Order to prioritize climate change and pursue environmental justice in the US Department of the Interior.
“I’m optimistic about we can accomplish together to care for our land so that it is there for future generations,” she said.
Recently, at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2021, Haaland explained how the COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted disparities in indigenous and marginalized communities. Therefore, we must take action to address those disparities, including those caused by climate change.
Now, with the “power of indigenous resilience, language, and knowledge,” she believes America will usher in a new era.
“With indigenous knowledge, our 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.
Featured images: Screenshots via YouTube