Why the appointment of Deb Haaland, a Native American woman, to head the US Department of the Interior spreads hope around the world

By Elsa Stamatopoulou
Thursday, February 4, 2021
Deb Haaland is the first Native American to ever be nominated as head of a US Department. What is the broader framework that will help us appreciate the significance of this nomination?
Deb Haaland is from New Mexico, from the Laguna Pueblo and Jemes Peoples. She is a jurist and has worked in the administration of the Laguna Pueblo as well as in the Democratic Party. She was first elected to Congress in 2018. (1)
What is the Department of the Interior, which she has been asked to head? Staffed with 70,000 employees, the Department has a broad mandate of great significance for Indigenous Peoples. It is a Department that has played a nodal role in the uprooting of Native Americans. It oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, all public lands and natural resources in the US, and the relations between the US and Native Americans in particular. Haaland, who has prior environmental experience, will also be part of President Biden’s team on Climate Change.
Upon her nomination, Deb Haaland said this: “I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.” (2) These words echo Indigenous philosophy, which holds that the land, Mother Earth, is also a subject of rights. “Native history is American history,” she said. “Regardless of where you are in this country now, you’re on ancestral Indian land, and that land has a history.” (3)
Support of Indigenous leaders for Haaland’s nomination was massive. More than 130 leaders advocated for her nomination. The fact that President Biden selected Haaland, even though he would be subtracting a key vote from the already thin Democratic majority in the House, shows that the new government really wanted to take this historic step, placing the first Native American in this high position.
Let us not forget that the USA was founded on two «original sins»: genocides against Indians and the grabbing of their lands; and slavery and the exploitation of the labor of millions. Benefiting from these two evils, the US accumulated huge wealth.  America as we know it would simply not exist without them.These ghosts continue to haunt this country.
According to some calculations, some 60 million people inhabitated the Americas before 1492.  A century later, only about 6 million were left. About 10 million are estimated to have inhabited, before colonization, the lands spanning the US today. In the 2020 US census 5.2 million self-identified as Indigenous. This is a 39% increase by comparison with the 2000 census, evidence of increasing strength and pride. Today, the Federal Government recognizes 574 Tribes or Nations, but hundreds of others exist, whether they are seeking recognition or not.
What are some of the human rights issues affecting Native Americans today? Social statistics tell of continuing marginalization and systemic discrimination. 27% of those self-identifying as Indigenous live in poverty. (4Disproportionately negative health and education statistics continue, and this also holds for the representation of Native Americans in prisons and in the victims of sexual and other violence against Indigenous women. Practices associated with settler colonialism in the distant past in fact continue today such as the violation of treaties between the state and Indigenous Peoples; the questioning of the very existence of many Indigenous nations; the undermining of Indigenous jurisdiction even in the limited lands left to them; the violation of their lands by extractive industries (as for example was the case with the Dakota Access Pipeline); the violation of Indigenous cultural heritage (as for example through the granting of mining leases in the Bears Ears Monument, which President Biden has promised to restore); the prohibition of access of Native Americans to sacred sites located in protected parks; and the erasure of Native Americans from most school curricula, which leads many to believe that Native Americans no longer exist.
To all this we must add the general refusal of this country to recognize its history. This history included the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their families and their placement in boarding schools from 1860-1978, a practice aimed at deleting their identity. The slogan was, «kill the Indian, save the child».” (5Finally  and almost unbelievably, the Doctrine of Discovery is still legally applicable in the USA. This is the doctrine which, endorsed by the Vatican in 1493, declared that lands that are not inhabited by Christians are available for «discovery», meaning to be claimed and exploited freely by Christian kings. (6)
What are the positive developments that finally led to the nomination of Deb Haaland?
The Native Americans’ movement in the USA, which coincided with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, launched intense social struggles in this country and throughout the Americas. Together with decolonization,  these  mobilizations joined together in the creation of the global movement of Indigenous Peoples, one of the most robust and influential social movements of our time.
In this country, we can see the results of these long decades of Indigenous struggle unfolding in very recent times. Let me just mention three: Indigenous Peoples allied themselves to the Black Lives Matter movement and with its solidarity achieved in 2020 the removal of various statues of Columbus. (7) A significant victory was marked by a Supreme Court decision in the same year, in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case, that recognizes treaties concluded with Indigenous nations in the 19th century and Indian jurisdiction over large tracts of treaty lands. Plans for the XL Pipeline that was to bring oil from Canada to US refineries passing through Native American lands have finally been canceled by President Biden, a result of intense mobilization by Indigenous Peoples as well as by environmentalists.
Deb Halland’s nomination for the Department of the Interior has enormous symbolic, historic and political significance.
  • It symbolizes some representation of Indigenous Peoples in the US government.
  • The fact that it is this Department, the one that handles matters of primordial significance for Indigenous Peoples, that Haalnd will head. This means that, yes, it really does matter that an Indigenous person will now be leading it.
  • Finally and just as importantly, the appointment of Deb Haaland has great significance for Indigenous women. The undermining of Indigenous matriarchal societies by the settler colonial state resulted in the weakening of the leadership roles of Indigenous women, which among other things encouraged continuing violence against them. Secretary Deb Haaland is bringing back the face of the Indigenous woman leader in the public sphere.
Will Deb Haaland succeed?
In the four years at her disposal, the expectations are many and the demands for justice by Indigenous societies are profound. A lot will depend on difficult votes for legislation and budgets in Congress. But Deb Haaland represents hope for the whole world, even if it’s «uncertain hope», as the Greek Professor Dimitris Christopoulos rightly pointed out in an inspired article at the dawn of the New Year. (8) Haaland represents the hope that Indigenous Peoples’ dignity will be respected around the world and that this will be the case for all other social groups that have suffered exclusion and discrimination.
Haaland’s words are inspiring, and not just for Americans and Native Americans: «Seventy years ago, Native Americans right here in New Mexico couldn’t vote,” she said. “I want to tell everyone in this room, people who have been under attack who deserve never to be erased: I see you, I’m listening.” (9)
The author is Director, Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program, Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR). The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of ISHR.
(1) The first Native American persons to be elected for Congress in 2018 were Deb Haaland and Sharice Dands (Ho-Chunk Nation, Kansas).
(2) Aliyah Chavez ,Indian Country Today, Dec 17, 2020
(3) ΝΥΤ . Timothy Egan, Contributing Opinion Writer, Jan. 1, 2021
(4) IWGIA, Indigenous World, 2000, Copenhagen, p. 580
(6) Papal Bull VI “Intercetera” of Pope Alexander VI. See UN study on the Doctrine of Discovery by Tonya Gonnella Frichner , Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal construct known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has served as the Foundation of the Violation of their Human Rights, UN doc. E/C.19/2010/13, www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf
(7) Columbia University marked Indigenous Peoples Day for the first time in October 2020.
(8) Το 2020 Φεύγει με Φόβο. Το 2021 Όμως Έρχεται με Ινδιάνικη Ελπίδα.
POPAGANDA, 29 Dec 2020
(9) The Washington Post, Two Native American women are headed to Congress. This is why it matters, article by Sarah Sunshine Manning