On March 15, 2021, the Senate confirmed Deb Haaland (b. 1960) an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and a 35th generation New Mexican, as the first Native American Cabinet Secretary. She was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior on March 18 while wearing a traditional ribbon skirt, moccasins, and silver and turquoise jewelry. The occasion marked a historic breakthrough that builds on centuries of Native American women’s activism. To celebrate this milestone, the Center for Women’s History looks back at Haaland’s career and the history of the fraught relationship between tribal and federal interests. For the first time since the Department of the Interior was created in 1849, the Federal government’s responsibilities to Native American nations will be governed by a Native American woman.
Prior to 1849, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (then known as the Indian Affairs Office) was part of the War Department. As historian Heather Cox Richardson puts it, “reformers hoped that moving Indian Affairs from the War Department to the Interior Department…would lead to fewer wars. Instead, the move swept Indigenous people into a political system over which they had no control.” Native Americans were not enfranchised until the passage of the Indian Citizen Act of 1924 and could not vote, serve on a jury, or hold elected office. (State laws restricted Native Americans’ votes until 1962, and structural barriers to their full enfranchisement remain.)
Instead, Native Americans were considered “wards of the state.” The Department of the Interior implemented various Federal Indian policies, many of which were deeply oppressive to the people they purported to serve, such as compelling parents to send their children to residential schools—which suppressed Indigenous languages, religions, and cultures— and the partitioning and sale of tribal lands. By the 1940s, according to the Federal government’s own reports, “they were doing a horrible job ministering to Indians and Indian communities and more often than not made things worse,” writes historian David Treuer (Ojibwe), pointing to high rates of unemployment and poverty and lower life expectancy among Native Americans—shocking statistics which persist to this day and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By the time Deb Haaland was born, the Federal government was attempting to unilaterally terminate treaty obligations to Native nations. In response, Native activists formed intertribal organizations to fight for self-determination, tribal sovereignty, economic independence, and cultural integrity—an ongoing fight that Haaland alluded to in a statement after her historic nomination. “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,” she said.
Deeply experienced in politics, Haaland began her career registering Native American voters. She served as a tribal administrator and as the first Native American woman to chair a state Democratic Party. Her biography includes single motherhood, homelessness, food insecurity, a stint as a small business owner, and debt—she was paying off student loans from her law degree well into 2020.
In 2018, she became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. As she often says, Washington, D.C., has never heard a voice like hers. As a Congresswoman, Haaland was vice chair of the Equality Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, and the Natural Resources Committee; she was also a member of the coalition on sustainable energy and the environment. In calling for action on climate change, environmental justice, increased funding for Native American women’s maternal health, the protection of tribal lands, artifacts, and languages, and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with stronger protections for Native women and girls, Haaland situated herself within a long history of Native American women’s activism.
With her historic appointment as Secretary of the Interior, Haaland takes on responsibility for managing the nation’s water, natural resources, and vast public lands. Her nomination represents a breakthrough for women as well as a new opportunity, as she put it in an official statement on becoming Secretary, “to honor our nation-to-nation relationship with Tribes.”
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History