“Within minutes of the announcement that President-elect Joe Biden had nominated Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico as interior secretary, Native social media was celebrating. People in our community who have met Ms. Haaland began posting photos of her at Native events throughout Indian Country; one of my friends wrote, “Our auntie has done it!”
The jubilation is warranted, because Ms. Haaland, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, one of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes, would be the first Native American to head the Department of the Interior, indeed the first Native American to serve in the cabinet at all. But there is no question that if Ms. Haaland is confirmed, her seat at the table would be a very hot seat indeed.
Native representation is good, but the community will want her to deliver on expectations. And right now, expectations are stratospheric. In the Native community, many assume that Ms. Haaland will be our warrior, righting centuries of federal wrongs against our people and our tribes, especially those inflicted by the Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
But Ms. Haaland would need to calibrate a delicate balance between her populist identity as a champion of Native rights and tribal sovereignty and her new role defending the interests of the federal system. One of the first two Native women to be elected to Congress, Ms. Haaland is a remarkable trailblazer, but as anyone who has done it will affirm, breaking new trail, especially as one climbs upward, is riddled with potential mishap.
Ms. Haaland would not be the first Native American to serve in the upper echelons of a presidential administration. Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover’s running mate in 1928, was Native and even spoke fluent Kaw, which he learned at his grandmother’s knee. Curtis, though, is not admired as a role model, but instead derided as a reactionary assimilationist who promoted policies that significantly harmed Natives. The Curtis Act of 1898, which he introduced as a member of the House, broke up tribal lands, weakened tribal governments and abolished tribal courts.”