Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s charged mission of healing

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

By Karen Heller
July 17, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

ONAMIA, Minn. — One after another, the survivors rose, shaking, often in tears, some singing or chanting to share their stories of childhood horror.

“I will grieve with you. I will weep with you. I will feel your pain, as we mourn what was lost,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, sitting before them in the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe community gym last month.

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.


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For 150 years, U.S. policy forced Native American children into boarding schools built to eradicate their culture and assimilate them into White society.

The hidden legacy of Indian boarding schools in the United States