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Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

The leader of the U.S. Department of Interior says the agency is pushing the priorities of President Joe Biden’s agenda “rapidly,” citing moves to build a clean energy future while working to advance the needs of Indian Country.

Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, held a news briefing with 10 reporters on Thursday to discuss the progress of her federal agency. Indian Country Today was the only Indigenous publication represented in the nearly 45-minute briefing.

September marks six months since Haaland took over as the leader of the Interior — a historic move that made her the first Native person to serve as a Cabinet secretary.

For Native communities, Haaland cited her work to restore tribal homelands, address the missing and murdered Indigenous persons crisis, investigate federal boarding schools, and to mitigate damage of climate change to tribal nations.

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This week Haaland said she reflected on the tragic death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, a White woman whose body was found in Wyoming following a massive search from federal agencies.

“Anytime a woman is assaulted, kidnapped or goes missing, my heart breaks. I want justice for all of these cases, and I believe that every single person deserves to feel safe in their communities,” Haaland said.

Haaland said she feels like it's her job to raise the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people in light of Petito’s case, a media frenzy that caught national attention.

She is doing “everything” to promote public engagement on the “very important issue” of missing Native people, she said, citing her work to create a unit in the Interior to investigate and address these cases.

“My heart goes out to so many Indigenous women ... whose families have endured this for the last 500 years,” Haaland said. “Hopefully the folks who are writing the news and broadcasting the news will understand that these women are also friends, neighbors, classmates, work colleagues.”

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On the topic of federal Indian boarding schools, Haaland said the department is actively investigating the scope of the historic trauma.

The investigation is identifying boarding school facilities, locations of possible child burial sites and the identities of such children. Her agency is currently compiling decades of records.

She says the Interior is also building a framework for engaging with tribal nations and survivors. This fall, authorities will begin tribal consultations to discuss how to protect and share information about these findings.

A final written report on the scope of boarding schools in the U.S. is expected next year.

The report will “serve as a basis” for the rest of the agency’s work to bring justice to families and victims.

On climate change, Haaland announced that $14 million will go to tribes who are being forced to be relocated as a result of melting sea ice, degrading permafrost, coastal and river erosion, extreme precipitation, flooding, wildfires and other extreme weather events.

In a recent trip to the Quinault Nation in Washington state, Haaland said she saw the effects of this firsthand.

Haaland said moving forward, she is urging lawmakers to send the proposed bipartisan infrastructure bill to the president’s desk to continue forward with other infrastructure projects that have not yet been addressed.

Haaland was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 15.

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9/24 correction: President Joe Biden's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

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