Trills of acclamation erupt across Indian Country
Never has a nomination to a Cabinet position engaged the imagination and hopes of so many people across the nation, especially in Indian Country. People responded to the confirmation of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior with cheers, crying, honor songs and jingle dancing.
The nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior was confirmed by the Senate on Monday afternoon in a vote of 51-40. Haaland is a monumental confirmation to the post; the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the first woman. She is a 35th generation New Mexican whose people have lived there since the 1200s, the daughter of a veteran, and a member of the Laguna Pueblo nation.
Despite the fact that South Dakota is home to nine tribal nations, both South Dakota senators voted against Haaland’s confirmation.
Somebody like us
In a watch party and celebration of the confirmation hosted by the NDN Collective, IllumiNative and others, Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) introduced her friend and colleague Haaland by saying she felt, “the collective sense of Indian Country of joy, of empowerment, of the significance of it and the weight of it, the weight of having somebody who is like us running the Department of Interior when at the beginning of this country, and for so long, the federal government’s approach to tribal nations, to native people, was through the lens of the Department of War. And now we have somebody who’s going to be making decisions and listening to tribes, and working on these issues that have impacted every single one of us in ways that we can’t even, we can’t even wrap our minds around sometimes. And she’s going to do it with compassion, and with integrity, and with a deep understanding of why this is so important.”
Together, Davids and Haaland were the first Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress in 2019. On Monday they watched the confirmation together at Haaland’s DC home along with her two sisters, Zoe Magee and Denise Kirksey, and Haaland’s partner, Skip. Her child Somáh Haaland was on the way over. The family was making spaghetti in celebration.
Everyone in the room and on the Zoom/Facebook live call was crying tears of joy along with Kirksey, who said, “My knees are weak. We’re here screaming. I feel it was an inevitable thing and I knew it was going to happen. But it’s so awesome to have the confirmation, and to have it from all of you.” She choked up and apologized, “We’re an emotional family.”
Thank the ancestors and heal the future
Haaland’s confirmation is the culmination of generations and holds promise for generations to come. Kristin Welch (Menominee), one of the attendees at the watch party said, “Today feels like hope- hope for our young girls and women, hope for the protection of our waters and mother earth… hope that we will finally have justice and in that some long overdue healing… today we celebrate life!”
Haaland herself acknowledged the “millions and millions of prayers” that told the universe it was time for “representation in a place where we’ve never had representation.” She said, “Of course, this moment is a culmination of so many of the sacrifices that my ancestors made to leave behind a future for me, to my family who is here with me, the hard work we spent advocating and organizing for our communities for visibility for indigenous people.”
She explained her vision of representation and visibility, saying “If we’re visible, that means our needs are being met. That means we’re being taken seriously. That means our issues are going to be at the forefront of so many of the things that we know people need to fight for…I recognize that each of you with your prayers, your tweets, your letters, your hopes and dreams helped me to get through the selection process, the confirmation hearings and today’s call confirmation vote. Again, I am incredibly grateful for all of you.
She laid out her vision for the role of the Department of the Interior under Indigenous leadership for the first time, a vision where “[we] responsibly manage our natural resources to protect them for future generations so that we can continue to live, work, hunt, fish, and pray among them.”
She said, “Our country is facing interlocking crises of a global pandemic and economic downturn, racial injustice and climate change. We have so much work to do to bring justice to the communities who have borne the burden of environmental injustice; to Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian communities who have lived through terrible atrocities. And to those who will be needing jobs in a clean energy economy. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves so that Interior can play our part of the President’s plan to build back better.”
“The United States government is not against us but of us.”
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe chairman Harold Frazier released a statement saying, “Today the first child of Uncí Maka has been confirmed by the United States as the Secretary of the Department of the Interior.” Frazier went on to say this office is the highest held by a member of a Tribal Nation in the history of the United States.*
Echoing the comments of Davids, Frazier said, “Many people do not know that the responsibility of dealing with Tribal Nations was a duty of the Department of War. For 25 years the department that was responsible for war against tribal nations was also responsible for government policies to eliminate tribal nations. Many tribal nations did not survive those years.” He went on to explain that, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs was then transferred to the Department of the Interior and we would continue to struggle with poor government policies.”
Frazier praised President Biden for his faithfulness to Indigenous people in nominating Haaland. He said, “It is a pivotal moment to have a true Native American in such a high cabinet position.” He applauded Haaland for her “courage to forge a path for our people. With your strength, dignity and bravery we can see that the United States government is not against us but of us. Together we can begin an era of government-to-government communication that will serve as an example for generations to come. I am proud of the example you are setting for the youth of our nation.”
He praised Haaland as a water protector and made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the extreme degree of scrutiny she received in her confirmation hearings, a process many felt singled out her Indigenous heritage. During her confirmation hearing, Haaland was asked by why she co-sponsored a bill to protect grizzly bears in perpetuity. She answered, “I imagine, at the time, I was caring about the bears.”
Frazier closed his statement saying, “To the water protector and she who cares for the bears I say wopila tanka.”
*In fact, Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation, held the office of Vice-President of the United States from 1929-1933 under Herbert Hoover.
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