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Elizabeth Perez

North Fork Rancheria Mono Indians
Navy combat veteran

American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the military at five times the national average and have served in every major armed conflict for the past 200 years. Despite a complicated relationship with the U.S. government, Native Americans have consistently served in the military more than any other ethnicity, and no matter the conflict, continue to risk our lives for the country that once tried to eradicate our very existence.

Although many Native Americans serve in uniform, we don't often serve in high-ranking military positions. In politics, Native Americans are rarely seen serving in high-ranking political positions and there has never been a Native American appointed to serve in a presidential cabinet role.

It was not until recently that Native Americans had a visible role in Congress. There are currently five Native Americans serving, including Rep. Deb Haaland. Haaland is a Democrat who has represented New Mexico’s 1st congressional district since 2019. 

She is also now President Biden’s nominee to serve as Secretary of the Interior.

President Biden pledged to appoint a diverse cabinet and government, and 85 percent of his political appointees identify as people of color, women, or LGBTQ+. If the Senate confirms Haaland, she will be the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

This would be a significant milestone for Indian Country because the DOI oversees natural resources, cultural heritage, land conservation, and special commitments to Native Americans for healthy lives and opportunities.

Historically, all of these issues have been challenges for the Native American population, and these related challenges have become even more prevalent during COVID-19.

Sadly but predictably, we are seeing resistance in Haaland's nomination.

Several Republicans, including Rep. Pete Stauber, are in opposition to Haaland's nomination. Stauber has been leading the effort against Haaland as Interior Secretary and has asked lawmakers to join him in this quest to block Haaland.

What is troubling about Stauber's actions is that he holds an influential position as a non-Native political leader on several subcommittees and caucuses that directly affect the Indigenous peoples in Minnesota.

Stauber’s rallying of Republican lawmakers to block Haaland’s nomination was done without consultation of sovereign, federally-recognized tribal government leaders regarding their position on Haaland’s nomination.

Stauber’s actions are another example of systemic isolation and an attempt at blocking Native Americans from serving in critical roles within the U.S. government.

Historically, governmental roles that have significant impacts on Native peoples are often filled with non-Native leaders.

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The Department of Interior plays a vital role in energy security. A Native American leader with strong credentials as Interior Secretary will bring an understanding of the tribal landscape and opportunities for tribal lands to help boost our nation’s energy and climate security.

The National Park Service falls under the Interior, as well. Haaland’s oversight of the park system would serve to improve and increase relationships between park superintendents and tribal communities across the country.

From Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet; to Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the Pueblo; to Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park and the Muscogee Creek; National Park Service and tribal relationships are critical elements in the proper storytelling of our nation’s history and the shared path forward for our future.

Who better than a descendant of the First Nations, whose ancestors originally lived, protected, and preserved this nation’s land, to ensure protection for our nation and future generations?

Who better than a Native American leader to respect sovereignty and help rebuild the trust of government-to-government relationships with Indian Country?

Who better to lead the Department of the Interior than a descendant of the original keepers of this land?

Native Americans have been adapting for generations. Even during years of tragedy and historical genocide, we adapted, and we are still here.

As both a Native American woman and combat veteran, I am proud of the roles Natives have played to serve and protect our nation in uniform.

If Natives can serve in combat, putting our lives on the line, then we should also be supported when seeking significant leadership roles within the military and our federal and state governments.

Native Americans are not just “good foot soldiers who don’t have experience serving in executive roles,” as someone once told me with no hesitation while serving at the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

As Natives, we should be afforded the opportunity to serve our country in significant roles in the military, in local, state, and federal government, and not just within Indian Country.

As Natives, we respect land and life. We want to ensure our nation's economic prosperity and protect our future. These are not only Native American issues, these are American issues. 

We can begin to address them together when Debra Haaland is confirmed as the next U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Elizabeth Perez is a tribal member of North Fork Rancheria Mono Indians and a Navy combat veteran. She is the former Deputy Secretary at the California Department of Veterans Affairs and now leads a clean energy consulting firm in Southern California. Perez is also a member of the non-profit Truman National Security Project