From tears to joy

Deb Haaland’s nomination for Secretary of the Interior raises hopes for long-neglected Indigenous communities

By Linda Pentz Gunter

“For many Native Americans, the Department of the Interior has been known as a back-alley haven for shills, thieves and crooked, money-hungry American Indian-hating cronies.

“But now, we’ll have one of our own stepping in to run the rats out and right old wrongs.”

That’s how Simon Moya-Smith, an enrolled citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a Chicano writer and journalist, opened his December 18 column for NBCs’ Think, welcoming president elect Joe Biden’s choice of U.S. Representative Deb Haaland for the position of Secretary of the Interior.

The nomination of the New Mexico Democrat, a member of Laguna Pueblo, has blown a fierce gust of fresh air into the musty cabinet rooms of Washington, DC.

“A new scintilla of hope has bloomed among us in part because Haaland, like millions of Indigenous peoples, strongly believes in and practices the Seven Generation rule,” wrote Moya-Smith. “The rule says that all significant decisions must be made with the next seven generations in mind, and includes preserving and protecting the water, the earth and the two leggeds and the four leggeds for people you will never meet — at least in this life.”

For many, the hope is more than a “scintilla”. It’s a big, blinding blast of light, an almost unimaginable transformation in a department that Trump inhabited with a man (Ryan Zinke) who was clueless enough to boast to Native Americans that he rode a horse named Tonto.

And Haaland is ready to shine that light. In a January 3 meeting with environmental justice and tribal leaders, The Hill reported that “Haaland committed to ‘fully’ honoring the U.S.’s treaty obligations to tribal nations and working with leaders to address the ‘disproportionate harm’ Native Americans face ‘from long-running environmental injustices’ and climate change.”

Deb Haaland, who understands all about genocide, toured the US Holocaust Museum in 2019 and wrote: ” Our tour of the @HolocaustMuseum reminded us of the dark pages in our history that we should never repeat. We must welcome those seeking refuge in our country or the blood will be on our hands.” (Photo: Deb Haaland)

Haaland’s election to the US House in 2018 marked the first time any Native Americans had risen to that office (she was joined then by Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas and in 2020 by Republican, Yvette Herrell also of New Mexico). She was a standout speaker during the virtual Democratic National Convention last August, reminding the audience then that “ My people survived centuries of slavery, genocide and brutal assimilation policies.” And yet, ”throughout our past, tribal nations fought for and helped build this country.”

That included helping build the nuclear weapons arsenal by mining uranium, unprotected and uninformed, believing theirs to be a national service to the country. Instead, it was a brutal sacrifice.

Haaland has been in the forefront of the fight to get restoration and compensation for Native uranium miners and their families. Getting the mines cleaned up will also likely be high on her priority list at Interior.

With many Native Americans living on contaminated land without clean — and indeed any running — water, “one of the most important things I see her accomplishing is helping us protect our natural resources,” Craig Falcon, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, said of Haaland when speaking with reporters from the Washington Post as news of the nomination broke.

The importance of that message — brought most powerfully into perspective by the Native-driven Water is Life movement — was not lost on Haaland when the occupation at Standing Rock in North Dakota got underway, in protest at the Dakota Access Pipeline. Haaland traveled there from New Mexico, and served occupiers her homemade tortillas and green chili.

“I went to Standing Rock because I believe the health of our earth and environment are the most important factors for the future of our children and grandchildren and their ability to thrive, and I saw the #NoDAPL protest as a drum beat for true environmental change,” Haaland wrote of the experience on Medium.

Haaland’s understanding, not only of the hardships at Standing Rock but those of every day, fill many with hope for what she may now achieve. According to her Congressional bio, Haaland grew up poor and, “as a single mother, volunteered at her daughter’s pre-school in order to afford an early childhood education. Like many New Mexicans, she had to rely on food stamps at times as a single parent, has lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and struggled to put herself through college.”

Rep. Deb Haaland offers her thanks for receiving the 2020 Nuclear Free Future Award

In July 2019, Haaland and fellow Democratic Congressman, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico introduced legislation to expand compensation for individuals exposed to radiation while working in and living near uranium mines or downwind from nuclear weapon test sites. The bill came in recognition of the many left out of the original 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) including, stunningly, New Mexico’s Trinity test downwinders. 

In addition to expanding the reach of recipients, the 2019 version of RECA includes a congressional apology to the individuals in New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nevada, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands who were exposed to radiation.

Last year, Haaland was also recognized by the Nuclear Free Future Award, receiving the award in the Special Recognition category.

“I’ve called on the US government to clean up mining sites, compensate uranium workers and rectify the wrong that has been done to Indigenous communities,” said Haaland in accepting the award in a video recording. “And I’m not going to let up.”

Now, Haaland will be the US government. And for Indigenous communities, she could finally blaze a trail of tears of joy.

Headline photo: “Representative Deb Haaland (NM-01)” by Moms Clean Air Force is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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