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Pauly Denetclaw
Special to Indian Country Today

Officially one year in office, Deb Haaland celebrated her “impactful” year Wednesday as the first Indigenous person to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In a phone call with reporters before an appearance at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, pointed to the $31 billion that has gone into Indigenous communities and other big wins for Indian Country under President Joe Biden’s administration.

“This has been a big first year of the Biden-era administration for Indian Country specifically,” she said. “There were some incredible moments that will be part of our collective memory for generations to come.”

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The impact ranged from an infusion of pandemic funds into tribal communities to an Indian Boarding School Initiative that is creating a comprehensive report on the federal boarding school system in the U.S.

“We worked to get billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan out quickly to protect elders, young people and entire communities from the terrible virus,” she said. “After years of call to action and a tremendous response from Indian Country and its allies, the president restored protections for Bears Ears National Monument. And in my remarks on the White House lawn, I stated that President Biden would protect the sacred place for every child of the world.”

She continued, “We kicked off the first White House Tribal Nations summit in four long years, so that we could create policies based on the input of Indigenous leaders. And back home in New Mexico, we've proposed long-sought-after protections for Chaco Canyon.”

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She was asked if she had a message to supporters of American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, who remains in federal prison after his 1977 conviction on aiding and abetting the murder of two federal agents. Supporters are seeking clemency for him, because he is in poor health and tested positive for COVID-19 in late February.

“I’ve spoken on Leonard Peltier in the past,” Haaland said. “I am always praying for his health, and praying that family is also able to move forward in a way that they would like to.”

Haaland also gave an update on the Indian Boarding School Initiative report, which is set to be released in April.

“We've been working on that initiative extremely hard,” she said. “The next steps include working across the department to complete research that will identify boarding school facilities and find the locations of known and possible burial sites located at or near school facilities, and identify tribal affiliations of children interred at those locations.”

She continued, “We have been very cognizant of the fact that we need to create a safe space for people to share information and seek resources. We recognize that this is a very traumatic experience for many people.”

“We want to make sure that folks have the resources that they need to get through this,” she said. “I haven't seen the report yet. I look forward to getting the draft of that report.”

She also spoke to the Biden administration’s policies on oil and gas drilling on public lands. Despite running on a promise to move away from drilling on public lands, the administration has changed its position, driven by the war in Ukraine that has driven up gas prices to an average $4.43 per gallon. The issue is only exasperated by historic inflation that has caused rising food prices.

“President Biden is concerned deeply about working families who are bearing the brunt of these higher prices,” Haaland said. “U.S. oil and gas production is approaching record highs, quite frankly, while thousands of drilling permits on federal lands are going unused. We are approving the permits for leases that are already approved. And at the same time, we're working very hard to make sure that we can move our reforms forward. We know that our existing oil and gas programs are broken.”

She reiterated Biden's commitment to addressing the climate crisis through key legislation such as the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which provide millions of dollars for clean energy projects. The administration is still trying to pass Build Back Better, which would provide billions in funding for clean energy. Biden has promised to cut greenhouse emissions in the U.S. by as much as 52 percent by 2030.

“We're working to understand the impacts to land, water, wildlife and climate change,” Haaland said. “We want to make sure that we are getting meaningful public participation and tribal consultation as we move forward with the reforms that we are working on.”

It was also important to Haaland, that the Interior Department, which has more than 60,000 employees, looks like America. She said more than 60 percent of the employees are now people of color, and 70 percent are women.

When she ran for Congress and during her bid for the cabinet position, Haaland centered herself as an Indigenous woman from a working-class background, saying representation matters.

“Equity and inclusion are fused in all of the work that we do, which is made stronger and more effective by having teammates with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences,” Haaland said.

It has been a whirlwind year for Haaland in her new position but she seemed to be in good spirits.

“They say that time flies when you're having fun,” Haaland said. “This past year has been nothing short of engaging, inspiring and memorable.”

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