Who is Deb Haaland? Joe Biden's cabinet eyes New Mexico rep as first Native American woman to lead Interior Dept

Debra Anne Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and a thirty-fifth generation New Mexican

                            Who is Deb Haaland? Joe Biden's cabinet eyes New Mexico rep as first Native American woman to lead Interior Dept
Deb Haaland (Getty Images)

A historic selection of cabinet appointees for president-elect Joe Biden was unveiled, which not only names John Kerry as climate czar but also includes the first Latino head of the Department of Homeland Security and the first woman to head the intelligence community. 

Now, all eyes are set on Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico's first district, who — if selected — would be the first Native American to lead the Interior Department. As per The Hill, lawmakers penned down a letter to a transition team noting an opportunity to “make history by giving Native Americans a seat at the Cabinet table for the first time.” It read: “Representative Deb Haaland is eminently qualified to be Interior Secretary. She has been a champion for our environment and public lands and has worked tirelessly to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and Indian tribes.” 

According to the same report, the United States Secretary of the Interior is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources, overseeing everything from parks to reservations. Senator Tom Udall said in a letter obtained by the outlet that “the current administration’s delay in certifying the election already poses a risk to Native Americans dependent on federal services.”  

Deb Haaland (US House Office of Photography/Wikimedia Commons)

Who is Deb Haaland?

Born as Debra Anne Haaland in Winslow, Arizona, she is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and a thirty-fifth generation New Mexican. Haaland was raised by her mother, Mary Toya — who served in the United States Navy and her Norwegian American father, Major JD "Dutch" Haaland, — who was an officer in the United States Marine Corps and recipient of the Silver Star for his role in Vietnam. 

At 28, Haaland earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of New Mexico in 1994. Four days later, she gave birth to her daughter, Somah, and soon started a salsa company to support her child as a single mother. Struggling to afford housing, she relied on food stamps and friends for shelter. In 2006, she earned her Juris Doctor in Indian law from the University of New Mexico School of Law and soon after, became the first Chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, a Laguna-owned business.

Since 2019, she has been serving as the Representative from New Mexico's 1st congressional district, which includes most of Albuquerque, along with most of its suburbs. In an interview with Roll Call, she said, “I’m always gonna fight for folks... I think it’s any government’s obligation to make the lives of people better. That’s why we pay our taxes. We want good roads, we want solid bridges. We want nice playgrounds for kids to play in. We want safe communities. We don’t want our neighbors to go hungry. I know what a nice neighborhood is like, and I want people to be able to find success.”

Debra Haaland (Getty Images) 

First Native American woman to serve in Congress

In 2012, Haaland served as the state's vote director for Native Americans in Barack Obama's 2012 presidential reelection campaign and during her initial run for Congress until 2018, she still had student loans from pursuing her law degree. While she was on the path to becoming the first Native American woman ever to serve in Congress, she told Time, “It’s not that we haven’t tried... It’s not that native women haven’t tried. Ada Deer tried. Kalyn Free tried. Denise Juneau tried a couple of years ago.” The three women lost their respective election bids — in Wisconsin in 1992, Oklahoma in 2004 and Montana in 2016.

Shedding light on her struggle, she said then, “I’ve had to struggle like a lot of folks. I’m still paying for student loans. I’m a single mom. I know what it’s like to have to put back food at the checkout line because you don’t have enough money and those kinds of things. I think it’s important that we have different perspectives. We need more diversity in Congress,” adding, “I really think that we do need more people who know what it’s like to struggle.”

Recalling how she broke down and cried when she didn't have enough for a Thanksgiving dinner for her daughter, she told Roll Call, “And we just ate like we normally would,” she says. “I didn’t make a big deal out of it to my daughter. It wasn’t Thanksgiving dinner, though.” 

Representative Deb Haaland (Getty Images)

What do Native Americans feel?

Did you know the Lakota People's Law Project, a social justice organization, also started a petition with thumbs up from more than 120 tribal leaders in favor of appointing Haaland? Advocates Patrick Manning and Sianna Lieb began the Change.org petition that reads: “Naming a Native American to lead the Department of the Interior honors the sacrifice Native tribes have made for the growth of our country, as well as rewards them for their participation in our democracy,” and continues, “She is an amazing choice but by far, not the only Native American who is qualified for this position (personally I will continue to ask the administration to consider input from tribe elders on a selection process that not only yields the best candidate but also honors cultural traditions).”

As per The Hill, a recent survey by nonprofit IllumiNative found out that 71 percent of Native people hope at least one Native person to the cabinet was absolutely essential under the Biden administration. “Representative Haaland, through two elections to Congress, has been vetted and has wide-ranging and broad support by tribal leaders and activists. She has a long and dedicated career working with and in tribal governments. The Department of the Interior impacts the lives of all Americans and needs a visionary - Representative Haaland is that visionary,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, Founder and Executive Director of IllumiNative, in a statement. 

What is Haaland's stance? “It would be an honor to move the Biden-Harris climate agenda forward, help repair the government to government relationship with Tribes that the Trump Administration has ruined, and serve as the first Native American cabinet secretary in our nation’s history,” Haaland said in a statement to The New York Times.

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