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Pauly Denetclaw
Special to Indian Country Today

Before becoming a cabinet secretary, before being elected to Congress, Deb Haaland’s life looked a lot different than it does now.

In the mid-1990s, she became a first-time mother and wanted to ensure her child had access to early childhood education, so she volunteered at her child’s preschool in order to pay for it.

She relied on food stamps at times, and operated her own small business, Pueblo Salsa, the only job that could offer her the flexibility she needed as a single parent. But she lived paycheck to paycheck, and struggled to pay for college.

Then came law school, a new career, and politics, setting her on a path that saw her elected as one of the first Indigenous women in the U.S. Congress.

“Congress has never heard a voice like mine,” she said in a 2018 political ad.

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On March 15, 2021, she made history by becoming the first Native person to serve in the president’s cabinet, taking charge as Secretary of the Interior, overseeing nation-to-nation relationships with hundreds of federally recognized tribes and managing and protecting thousands of acres of land.

Her rise in the political world has gripped the attention and tugged at the heartstrings of Indigenous people across the nation, who looked to Haaland and saw themselves for the first time.

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Representation matters, and Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, knows that well.

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she tweeted before the vote for her confirmation.

A voice like hers has now been heard. But what has she said and done in her first year as Secretary of the Interior? And has she done enough?

Haaland's office declined a request for an interview with Indian Country Today about her first year in the cabinet, but she is set to meet with reporters on Wednesday, March 16, the anniversary of her first official day in office.

Taking charge of MMIW

In her first few weeks after taking charge, Haaland established the Missing and Murdered Unit under the Office of Justice Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“All of the things that she accomplished or is working to pull together right now are monumental for our communities,” said Angel Charley, Laguna Pueblo, the executive director for the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. “Particularly the MMU that she created. She did that as soon as she got into office, and created an expansive budget under it.”

As a member of Congress, Haaland had helped champion two important pieces of legislation, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act. Savanna’s Act was created to address challenges — including coordination among federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement agencies — that often hinder investigations of Indigenous people who go missing or are murdered.

The Not Invisible Act called on the Department of Interior to “increase intergovernmental coordination to identify and combat violent crime against Indians and on Indian lands.”

She’s now in charge of putting the laws to work.

“It's this really beautiful way for her to introduce Savanna's Act, Not Invisible Act, and then find herself in a position to be able to actually implement it through the Department of Interior,” Charley said. “It was amazing to see.”

The establishment of the MMU was monumental for Indigenous communities, where murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women living on their homelands and with 1.5 million Native women experiencing violence in their lifetime.

“This unit is important, because I think almost every Indigenous person knows someone in their own community, or a relative who has gone missing or has been murdered, and there wasn't follow up, or justice, in those cases,” Charley said.

But more can be done, Charley said – she’d like families connected with the resources they need to keep momentum going on investigations.

“We know that families are still the ones leading the investigation a lot of the time, and they're doing it out of their own pocket, and it's a heavy burden for them,” Charley said. “So that feels like a piece that isn't being addressed through any of the responses that we've seen yet.”

Unmarked graves

In late May 2021, the world was shocked when 215 remains of Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves around the former site of the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. In the following months, thousands more unmarked graves were discovered across Canada, sparking calls for the United States to do the same kind of investigations around current and former Indian boarding school sites.

“In Canada, there's this enormous national reckoning right now about the residential schools,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a fellow for New America and Type Media Center writing about environmental policy. “It's just been so unsettling to me to watch what's happened in Canada make international headlines and American newspapers, like The New York Times, cover that story, without any acknowledgement of the fact that the same thing happened here in the United States — that had significantly more schools and more children who unfortunately were taken into those schools.”

Just three weeks after the discovery made in Kamloops, Haaland announced at the National Congress of American Indian 2021 Mid Year Conference that the Interior Department would undertake a comprehensive review of federal boarding schools with an emphasis on cemeteries and potential burial sites.

“As I read stories about an unmarked grave in Canada where the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found last month, I was sick to my stomach,” Haaland wrote in an op-ed. “But the deaths of Indigenous children at the hands of government were not limited to that side of the border… The United States also has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people. It is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era.”

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on May 27, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been found buried on the site of the former residential school. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Indian Boarding School Initiative conducted three virtual consultation sessions with tribal leaders and accepted oral and written comments through Dec. 23. The report is due out April 1.

“I’ve been waiting and waiting for something about boarding school in the US and to rise in the same way that the Canadian story on the same subject has. It hasn’t happened,” NoiseCat, Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen and a descendant of the Lil'Wat Nation of Mount Currie, said. “I'm really hopeful that the inquiries that the Interior Department is taking on under Sec. Haaland’s leadership will help finally get the attention it deserves and bring about the kind of reckoning we need to have here.”

Haaland has also strengthened the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act by establishing a memorandum of understanding with eight federal agencies to affirm their commitment to protecting Indigenous sacred sites.

And the department has released 660 replacement names for geographical features whose names include the derogatory s-word.

Other issues at  hand

But not everything has gone as smoothly as hoped in Indian Country.

It took longer than expected for government to heed the calls to re-list the gray wolf as an endangered species, after 24 gray wolves were killed in Montana last year. An entire pack was eliminated through hunting and trapping outside of Yellowstone National Park.

On Feb. 8, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – which is also under the Department of Interior – announced it would look into re-listing the gray wolf as an endangered species. Two days later, a federal judge in California ruled that the agency had improperly removed the gray wolf from protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The court ruling re-established protections for the gray wolf, but President Joe Biden’s administration defended removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list, even stating that the gray wolf population would bounce back even if their numbers dropped due to hunting.

The Interior department has yet to make a public comment or decision. Only 5,000 to 6,000 gray wolves remain.

Drilling on public lands is another sore subject, with the Biden administration approving more oil and gas drilling permits on public lands than his predecessor did in his first year.

The Trump administration in 2017 approved on average 245 permits per month; the Biden administration in 2021 approved on average 333 permits per month. In April alone, 652 oil and gas permits were approved.

Opponents to drilling on public lands had high hopes that Haaland could help. In 2016, Haaland went to Standing Rock to support water protectors at the frontlines of trying to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. People hoped that with this background she would be a strong advocate for protecting the water and lands from energy development.

Water protectors place a flag in Standing Rock at a North Dakota Access pipeline construction site in 2016. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

“Biden said that they were going to pause drilling on public lands and now fully reversed course on that promise,” NoiseCat said. “If you look at Madam Secretary's legislative record on that issue, it's pretty clear where she personally stands. I just think that she's coming up against the limits of the institution on being able to follow through on some of those things.”

Still, Haaland has established the Climate Task Force, through a secretarial order, to accelerate renewable energy development in an effort to address climate change.

Looking ahead

Expectations remain high for Haaland, who has at least another three years at the Department of the Interior. And the demands continue.

NoiseCat said he would like to see Haaland move toward more “Indigenous-led conservation, more Indigenous co-management or outright management of lands that were ours and still are ours.”

Charley would like to see an investigation into the impact of oil and gas drilling on the rise of missing and murdered Indigenous women. While the reauthorized Violence Against Women’s Act of 2022 includes substantial expansions on the jurisdiction of tribal judicial systems to prosecute non-Native offenders, the new changes still have to be implemented.

“We know that when there are extractive industries present, there is an increase of violence against Indigenous people, more often sexual violence,” Charley said. “Without the full tribal implementation within the VAWA, our tribe can still not prosecute non-Native offenders if they commit crime on tribal land, specifically, sexual violence. So that is the piece we really want to see addressed.”

But Charley noted that the Department of Interior does oversee the Bureau of Land Management and some of the other departments that could be held accountable.

said she would like to see action soon to restore protections for the gray wolf.

“Why has the protection of wolves been so difficult? Advocates including the association were simply asking to halt or enjoin activities against wolves,” O’Loughlin said. “Putting a stop to hunting or putting a moratorium for a period of time while things were reviewed.”

Yet many people in Indian Country understand the limitations of Haaland’s interior secretary, that working within the federal government means her past views won’t always align with her current actions.

Haaland still draws crowds for her public appearances, with many in the audience in tears to see her.

Cherokee Immersion School teacher Cindy Collins, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. listen to third-grade students in Tahlequah in December 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cherokee Nation)

“Her first year, we are so happy to see her strength on issues concerning missing and murdered Indigenous peoples and the need to investigate boarding schools. And the Department of Interior and the federal government's obligations now on healing and providing reparations and understanding of what the boarding school policy was about,” said Shannon O'Loughlin, Choctaw Nation, chief executive and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs.

“I have a lot of compassion for Deb Haaland. I can't imagine her internal struggles to kind of maintain these different perspectives about what integrity and duty are," O'Loughlin said.

"The definitions of integrity and duty as an Indigenous person, and the obligations that we have to our own nations and Indian Country generally ... can absolutely come into conflict with our integrity and our duties as a federal official.”

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