Tribe member Haaland now heads agency that once oppressed Native Americans

MICHELLE STODDART
·6 min read
Tribe member Haaland now heads agency that once oppressed Native Americans

"History is being made, yet again," Vice President Kamala Harris said Thursday as she swore in Deb Haaland as the first Native American woman as interior secretary -- taking over the agency that once said the federal government's policy of removing tribes from their lands, leading to the Trail of Tears, needed to be even more oppressive.

"The only alternatives left are to civilize or exterminate" indigenous people, then-Secretary of the Interior Alexander H.H. Stuart wrote in the 1851 Report of the Interior.

Some 200 years later, Haaland, a congresswoman from New Mexico when nominated, spoke then of what it meant.

PHOTO: Secretary of the interior nominee Rep. Deb Haaland testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, DC on Feb 24, 2021.  (Leigh Vogel/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Secretary of the interior nominee Rep. Deb Haaland testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, DC on Feb 24, 2021. (Leigh Vogel/AFP via Getty Images)

"This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the interior once proclaimed his goal to, quote, 'civilize or exterminate' us," Haaland said. "I'm a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology. I also stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and all the people who have sacrificed so that I can be here."

A member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, Haaland has proudly displayed her heritage, wearing Native American dress at both her swearing-in as a member of Congress in 2019 and at her ceremonial swearing-in on Thursday.

PHOTO: Vice President Kamala Harris, right, speaks during a ceremonial swearing in for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, third from right, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, March 18, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Brandon/AP)
PHOTO: Vice President Kamala Harris, right, speaks during a ceremonial swearing in for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, third from right, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, March 18, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Haaland introduced herself before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in February in the native language of the Laguna Pueblo, acknowledging the hearing was taking place on the native lands of the Anacostia, Piscataway and Nakochtank tribes.

With the Interior Department controlling politically controversial access to oil and gas drilling on federal lands, she made it clear she plans to make a transition to clean energy a priority.

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"As I’ve learned in this role, there’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund critical services," Haaland said. "But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed. Together we can work to position our nation and all of its people for success in the future, and I am committed to working cooperatively with all stakeholders, and all of Congress, to strike the right balance going forward.

"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," she said. "And that means protecting it in every single way and ensuring that those jobs, that sustenance, the opportunities for our children and grandchildren to learn and grow in this beautiful country that -- that we keep that for many generations to come. It's an obligation of mine that I take very seriously."

PHOTO: New Mexico congressional candidate Deb Haaland embraces a supporter during her visit to the Albuquerque Indian Center for the Native Vote Celebration in Albuquerque, N.M. on election night, Nov. 6, 2018. (Juan Antonio Labreche/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: New Mexico congressional candidate Deb Haaland embraces a supporter during her visit to the Albuquerque Indian Center for the Native Vote Celebration in Albuquerque, N.M. on election night, Nov. 6, 2018. (Juan Antonio Labreche/AP, FILE)

Haaland she said she would also focus on bringing broadband access to Native American communities, as well as addressing the high number of missing and murdered Native American women and disparities revealed by the pandemic.

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Indigenous activists and government groups have nothing but praise, with the Indigenous Environmental Network specifically noting the importance of Haaland's new role to Native American legislative priorities.

"Haaland leading the Department of Interior is a historic and necessary step to healing the tribal relationships with the United States. Being the first Indigenous person to head the Department of Interior, and second in a Cabinet position, we know that Haaland will help the administration find its path in confronting climate change, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country, ensuring an effective economic just recovery plan for Native nations and Indigenous communities, overseeing the protection of public lands, and fulfilling treaty and statutory obligations to the first peoples of Turtle Island."

The chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and former governor of Haaland's home town, Laguna Pueblo, Wilfred Herrera Jr., called it was a "defining moment."

"Indigenous peoples are the original stewards of our lands, waters, skies, and of all living beings," Herrera Jr. said in a press release. "Secretary Haaland’s leadership of the Interior Department provides a long-overdue opportunity to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship and help our nation swing the pendulum on our most pressing indigenous and environmental justice issues.”

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Republican senators were not as pleased. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would vote to confirm Haaland despite some "serious misgivings."

"I have really struggled with this one how to reconcile a historic nomination with my concerns about the individuals and an administrations conception of what Alaska's future should be," Murkowski said. "Representative Haaland, if you're listening, know that I intend to work with you because I want you to be successful and quite honestly we need you to be successful, but I am also going to hold you to your commitments to ensure that Alaska is allowed to prosper. "

PHOTO: Secretary of the interior nominee Rep. Deb Haaland testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, DC on Feb 24, 2021.  (Sarah Silbiger/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Secretary of the interior nominee Rep. Deb Haaland testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, DC on Feb 24, 2021. (Sarah Silbiger/AFP via Getty Images)

While noting Haaland favorable review from Alaska's indigenous groups, she said was concerned about the impact of Biden's energy policy on her state.

Haaland came under fire from other Republicans for her support of the Green New Deal and her opposition to fossil fuel projects including the Keystone Dakota Access pipeline. Many GOP senators grilled her in hearings about how those energy policies could cost American jobs.

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In the end, she garnered the support of four Republican senators giving her a clear path to confirmation in a 51-40 vote. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hailed Haaland's position as bringing an indigenous perspective to the table.

"Given the long and troubled relationship between the federal government and tribal nations, the ascension of Rep. Haaland to the top of the Interior Department is a profoundly important moment for America as we advance on the long road—still not fully traveled at all—of equality, or towards equality," Schumer said. For too long, tribal nations have been denied a seat at the table where decisions were made that impacted their lives and their land."

Upon being sworn in, she spoke of how she hopes to move forward from her history-making moment.

“I am proud and humbled to lead the dedicated team at Interior as we seek to leave a livable planet for future generations," Haaland said in a statement. "Together, we will work to advance President Biden’s vision to honor our nation-to-nation relationship with Tribes, address the climate and nature crises, advance environmental justice, and build a clean energy future that creates good-paying jobs and powers our nation."

ABC News' Sarah Kolinovsky, Molly Nagle, Allison Pecorin and Adia Robinson contributed to this report.

Tribe member Haaland now heads agency that once oppressed Native Americans originally appeared on abcnews.go.com