A Seat at the Table

Jun 26, 2021 | Blog

Deb Haaland Makes History as First Native American Cabinet Member

Wet Plate Collodion Photograph taken by Shane Balkowitsch of Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio, Bismarck, North Dakota

Two hundred years ago, more than one billion acres[1] of Native land was seized by the federal government to become America’s public land. Today, a Native American woman is breaking down barriers and making history by leading these lands as Secretary of the Interior.

Earlier this year, Deb Haaland became the first Native person to lead a U.S. Cabinet agency. A profound moment heralding the dawn of a new era of Native authority, Haaland’s confirmation and swearing in as head of the Department of Interior is also uniquely historic; much of the suffering of Native Americans throughout these last 200 years has been at the hands of the agency.

“I am proud and humbled to lead the dedicated team at Interior as we seek to leave a livable planet for future generations. Together, we will work to advance [the] 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.”

Deb Haaland

As Interior Secretary, Haaland manages about 500 million acres of public lands and vast coastal waters, oversees national parks and wildlife refuges, and protects threatened and endangered species. She is also directly responsible for managing the relationship with the nation’s 574 Tribes and the 50 million acres of Native land held in trust by Interior bureaus. After nearly 250 years of non-Natives holding this position of power and making decisions that impact Native lives and land, Native Americans finally have a seat at the table.

“For so long, the federal government’s approach to Tribal Nations to Native People was through the lens of the Department of War. And now we have somebody who’s going to be making decisions and listen to Tribes, and working on these issues that have impacted every single one of us in ways that we can’t even wrap our minds around sometimes. And she’s going to do it with compassion, and with integrity, and with a deep understanding of why this is so important.”

Sharice Davids, one of the first Native women elected to Congress in 2018 alongside Haaland

Haaland said her priorities include promoting clean energy and clean energy jobs, increasing access to broadband internet in Native American communities, and focusing on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

While having Native leadership in a Cabinet agency does not correct past wrongs, it does signify a vital national cultural shift and the importance of Native perspectives and knowledge in building a brighter world for future generations.

[1] Claudio Saunt, “The invasion of America,” Aeon, April 5, 2021, https://aeon.co/essays/how-were-1-5-billion-acres-of-land-so-rapidly-stolen


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