The first Native person to serve in a presidential Cabinet, she leads a department that once oversaw the removal of Indigenous people from their land
An enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland is the first Native person to serve in a presidential Cabinet, leading a department that oversees a fifth of U.S. land and was long charged with the systematic removal of Indigenous people from their tribal homelands.
“You have done more for Indian Country than any secretary who came before you. Others before you have tried to whitewash the history of war crimes against our people,” Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin told her, addressing an audience of about 150 before a Road to Healing event in June addressing the brutal legacy of Indian boarding schools.
Haaland keeps her hair long, true to Indigenous custom. Native jewelry is a constant — thick silver necklaces, shoulder-sweeping earrings. She was sworn in wearing a Native ribbon skirt, and her office doubles as a gallery of Indigenous art and artifacts. By comparison, Donald Trump’s first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, arrived his first day astride a bay roan named Tonto and filled the same room with a surfeit of taxidermy.
“Representation matters, not only representation mattering for Indigenous people, but also for people who are just everyday Americans,” she said over coffee before the Ojibwe meeting last month. “I’m feeling like I represent those people, too, right?”
The 54th secretary of the interior and only the third woman to serve, Haaland possesses a biography familiar to many Americans. She has been a single mother who at times has been on food stamps, in forbearance and without housing, crashing on friends’ couches.
“I know what it’s like to have $5 in your checking account,” she said. “I know what it’s like to decide between paying the rent or, you know, buying groceries for my child.”
Her friend, activist Crystal Echo Hawk, an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, said, “Think of the perspective she brings from being poor. It informs her perspective that very few Cabinet members have ever brought to the table.”
Haaland graduated from college at age 33, four days before giving birth to her only child, “scared to death my water would break during exams.” At 62, she still owes nearly $40,000 in law school, graduate school and college loans. The Biden transition team rented her a car to drive to Delaware for her Cabinet interview.
She is candid about her three decades in recovery from alcohol addiction. She is candid about a good many things, the stuff other politicians tend to sweep under rugs. She is the Cabinet secretary who cries minutes after meeting a reporter. “I’m sorry,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a cafe napkin.
Moments later, she wept again.
“We have obligations to people. We also have obligations to animals. We have obligations to the environment and the ecology,” said Haaland, who oversees a department of more than 60,000 employees. Also, to Native people whose “genocide in this country” dates back more than 500 years, long before there was a United States, much of it over land that her department manages.
How does Haaland fulfill these obligations, undo such damage, enact policy to combat climate change, run a vast department that includes America’s beloved national parks while, as she diplomatically put it, “redirecting” Trump administration policies of wide-scale mining and fossil fuel exploration on federal lands? Given the looming 2024 election, how much can she accomplish?
“Four years is a long time,” Haaland said.
“You’ve never been like that,” her communications director, Melissa Schwartz, scoffed. “You’re like, ‘We only have four years.’”
Central Minnesota was the seventh event of the department’s planned year-long Road to Healing to address the residual damage and largely unknown history of Indian boarding schools, 408 institutions that opened between 1819 and 1969 and will never be confused with elite New England preparatory academies.
Deb Haaland: My grandparents were stolen from their families as children. We must learn about this history.
For more than a century and a half, tens of thousands of children were forcibly removed from their families, some as young as age 5. The schools’ primary objectives were to assimilate and “civilize” Native children, to rob them of their language and culture. Students were physically abused and worse for not speaking English, for crying, for almost anything.
At the Tulalip reservation session in Washington, one survivor brought a bag of implements similar to those used to beat him as a child: a belt, a razor strop, a rope. The ongoing investigation, launched during the first year of Haaland’s tenure, has identified more than 500 deaths in school burial sites. That number, the department report notes, is projected to climb to “the thousands or tens of thousands.”
It would be hard to conceive of a program better engineered to ruin lives, decimate Native families and create what Haaland deems “intergenerational trauma.” Graduates were so inadequately educated — girls were trained to sew and clean, starting with the schools — as to be systemically mired in poverty. Depression, alcoholism and drug addiction choked communities. Some became poorly equipped to parent, having grown up without them and as victims of sustained abuse.
Haaland’s maternal grandparents were sent to one, beginning at age 8. Her grandmother saw her father only twice in five years. Her grandfather eventually became a master of languages, an accomplished musician and athlete, a natural leader. “If you had a kid like that, they’d be at Harvard,” Haaland said, blotting her tears. Instead, he spent 45 years as a diesel train mechanic while her grandmother cleaned them, working the midnight shift. They raised their family in an old boxcar “with no electricity, no telephone, no running water, no nothing,” Haaland said, though “they tried to make it nice.”
These survivors’ history is her family’s history. And so she listens, at gatherings that have run from four to eight hours with as many as 800 people in attendance.
Grace T. Andreoff Smith, 81, a mother of seven, a grandmother of 11, a wisp of a woman in a red turtleneck and matching glasses, rose to speak. A Yup’ik originally from Pitkas Point, Alaska, she was sent with her brother and cousin to Holy Cross boarding school more than 100 miles from home. (The federal government contracted with the Catholic Church to run many of these schools.) Smith has no idea at what age, possibly 6.
“The nun said, ‘You’re speaking barbarian. Speak English.’ In boarding school, you’re not even a human being,” Smith said. “For years, I was not a person. My personhood was taken away.” She calls the school “the Hell Place.” Sometimes, “I yell at God. ‘Why did I have to go through this? What kind of God are you?’” The boys were boarded separately from the girls. Smith never saw her brother or cousin again.
On this Saturday in June, Haaland rarely spoke for hours, listening deep into the afternoon, thanking everyone for sharing their stories of brutality and grief. The tour is essential to her department’s mission; healing a constant in her conversation.
“In a way, we’re also healing our country. That history is American history,” she said a few days later in her Interior Department office, down a wide hall lined with portraits of past secretaries, almost all of them White men, almost all curiously painted indoors and devoid of sunlight. “It affects every single American. It affects you whether you realize it or not.”
Battles over public land — who they belong to, their best use, preservation versus development — are older than the nation and are in no danger of subsiding. Always, there was fighting. Before the Interior Department’s creation in 1849, Indian Affairs was overseen by the Department of War.
The first people on this land were among the last to win the right to vote. Next year will mark the centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted Indigenous people citizenship. But some states blocked many Natives from voting until as recently as 1962, after Haaland’s birth, due to their residence on tribal land and exemption from paying state taxes.
Her father, who was White, served nearly 30 years in the Marines. The family of six moved constantly. Her mother worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which Haaland now oversees.
“My parents never talked about politics,” she said, but “I was raised in public service.”
A devoted cook who bakes birthday and wedding cakes for staffers, Haaland ran a home-based salsa company so she could spend more time with her child before attending law school, earning her JD. In August 2021, she found time to marry longtime partner Skip Sayre. Haaland recently opted to complete her master’s thesis in American Indian studies on traditional food practices of the Laguna Pueblo. She retyped the 65 pages and is finalizing the paper to submit to the University of California at Los Angeles.
Haaland has been involved in politics for much of her life, as a community organizer, canvassing for candidates, running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, serving as chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
“I just felt like it was my job to get out every single Native person to vote. I had an obligation to Indian Country, to my people,” she said. “I felt like they didn’t have the things that made their lives better.” When she liked a candidate, she was all in. She speaks about the current and 44th presidents like a middle-school fan girl. “I love President Obama. I love President Biden,” she said.
Haaland arrived in Congress in 2019 with a historic class of diverse, left-of-center female representatives: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Sharice Davids. They were deemed “The Bad Girls’ Caucus” by Teen Vogue and “The New Wave” by Vanity Fair, posing in a group portrait for the latter that she proudly displayed in her office.
As a member of the Green New Deal who pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies, how does Haaland reconcile her beliefs working for a more moderate president? How does she reconcile those positions with the Biden administration’s approval of the Willow oil-drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope that she vehemently opposed in Congress?
“I was very strong about that, but when you come here, you can’t be like, ‘I’m the Department of Deb Haaland,’ right?” said Haaland, who reportedly choked up in a March private meeting with environmental groups and Indigenous leaders trying to bar the decision. Yet, she became the administration’s public face of the project’s approval, made all the more potent by her Native heritage.
“There are a million considerations. I’m not running this department for the progressives who want to keep it [oil] in the ground,” Haaland said. “This is for the whole country. And so I am dedicated to doing the job that I was hired to do, and doing it in the right way. I mean, yes, I can insert my thoughts into things. But in the end, it has to be a decision that will benefit the country and certainly the region.” It is also true, she noted, that “many Native Alaskans support Willow” for the potential revenue and jobs.
“Imagine being in the Cabinet. It’s isolating no matter what,” said Davids (D-Kan.), a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. “Then stack on top of it that she is the first and only, and there are so many issues as a whole for the nation and Indian Country.”
The interior secretary is the Haaland in last month’s Supreme Court Haaland v. Brackeen decision that upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act protecting the well-being of Indigenous children and their families. She has made it a priority to scrub the word “squaw” from federal land, a term Haaland finds so offensive that she will not utter it. She took the lead in a 20-year ban halting gas and oil development in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, a sacred cultural site for Native people, which angered some Navajo over the loss of revenue, leading them to blockade the roads to last month’s victory celebration.
“It’s difficult to please people in Indian Country,” said Paulene Abeyta, a friend and protégée. “Someone is always upset.” And it would be wrong to think of Native people as a monolith. “No tribe is the same. Even within pueblos, Indian tribes, we’re all different,” Haaland said.
Her only child Somah is nonbinary, uses the pronouns they/them and works in media for an Indigenous nonprofit and a cultural center. House Republicans recently sent a letter raising ethics concerns about possible communication Haaland has had with her child and environmental activists regarding oil and fossil fuel leasing on federal land.
“Every day, she’s fully representing our community in ways that have never been visible in America,” said Holly Cook Macarro of Advance Native Political Leadership. “You see the earrings she wears and what that represents to Native women in Indian Country. Every time I see her, it hits me. And America is seeing her fill that space. She is the face of what America is trying to protect.”
Two and a half years into her tenure, Haaland can still become giddy talking about the job. “I’ve never been the secretary of anything,” she said. She recalled the staffer who told her, “I just love critters.” Coming from a landlocked state, Haaland loves touring fish hatcheries: “People who work there are just crazy about fish.” Oh, and the parks. “Everyone loves the national parks. Everyone loves park rangers. That’s awesome,” Haaland said. “Everywhere you go, right?”
Yes, everywhere. Everyone loves them until they’re more parking lot than park. The pandemic fueled that affection, with 312 million recreational visitors last year.
Their history is also complicated. “I want people to think about the fact that, yes, Teddy Roosevelt is this amazing figure. He started the national park system,” Haaland said, but “a lot of national parks kicked Native Americans off the land.”
Public lands “belong to every single American. They don’t belong to one industry,” she said. Haaland and her staff have an agenda, a schedule, working on clean energy and conservation initiatives. “Yes, we are in a hurry because you can’t predict what will ever happen.” The department maintains “long-term plans up to Jan. 20, 2025. It’s to get as much done as we possibly can before that date.”
The Road to Healing remains critical. “It’s hard for me not to think about my grandparents,” said Haaland, who keeps their photos in her office, “how things would have been different for them had our country had an awakening much earlier.”
The collateral damage of the government’s past policies “is in the land. It’s in the air. It’s here,” she said. “And if we want a healthy nation, that means healing for everyone.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Indian boarding schools opened in 1919. They opened in 1819. The article has been corrected.