Catching Up With Sec. Deb Haaland One Year Into the Biden Administration

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Despite what your internal clock—which, if it’s anything like mine, has been warped by the persistent presence of a pandemic—might be telling you, it’s now been a year since President Joe Biden was sworn into office. From the start, Biden pledged to fulfill his promise of creating a cabinet that “looks like America,” including choosing former Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior as the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history. The appointment was particularly significant as the agency is not only responsible for the nation’s public lands and wildlife, but also works closely with tribal governments and helps protect tribal land and resources, something the Interior has historically failed at in the past.

When Haaland was first sworn in, activist Crystal Echo Hawk told ELLE.com: “To have a Native leader sitting in that role, and to have the opportunity to begin to reset the relationship between the federal government and tribes, which is one that has been characterized by genocide, violence, removal, and corruption—well, it is revolutionary.” In the past year alone, Haaland has announced a new Missing and Murdered Unit, dedicated to solving cases involving American Indians and Alaska Natives, and a national investigation into American Indian boarding schools, where Native children were often subjected to abuse and trauma while being forced to culturally assimilate.

In honor of the one-year anniversary of the administration, we caught up with Haaland to discuss what it’s been like to assume this historic role and what her goals are heading into year two.

Throughout this first year of the Biden administration, how have you seen the Department of Interior shift with you, a Native American woman, at the helm?

We came in with a charge, right? Build a clean energy future. Conserve and restore the lands in our country. Strengthen our nation-to-nation relationships with Indian tribes, advancing equity and justice. We are working hard on all those issues, and I feel really grateful, of course, to be the first Native American cabinet secretary in the history of our country. I have always said that representation matters. I’m proud of the work we’ve done with respect to many underrepresented communities, and we’ll just keep moving forward.

deb haaland being sworn in as the new interior secretary on march 18, 2021 in washington, dc

Sec. Haaland’s swearing in.

Sarah SilbigerGetty Images

This last year, you announced a national investigation into American Indian boarding schools. You also have family members who were in these schools, and with the investigation, you said you intended to address intergenerational impact and trauma. How has your own family history informed your work over the past year?

When I think about it, my family has essentially been on the receiving end of decisions by this department and decisions by the federal government for centuries. Indian policy in this country started out as, they wanted to exterminate Native Americans, and then they decided, let’s assimilate them into mainstream society. Part of that issue was taking children from their communities and sending them to boarding school. I had many opportunities when I was younger to talk with my grandmother about her experience there. It’s heartbreaking to think about the fact that both her and my grandfather were taken away from their families when they were eight years old and weren’t able to go home until they were 13. I feel so dedicated to making that right, to healing those traumatic experiences for families who never saw their relatives come back home. I understand what that means, and I understand how it feels. And so I’m grateful that we have the opportunity to make that difference in people’s lives.

The final report will be submitted in a few months. Is there anything you can share about its findings?

I think the important thing to note is that whatever action we take after the report comes out will depend largely on what tribes want to do. We are in a new era for Indian tribes where consultation is meaningful. It’s an all-government approach to making sure that tribes have a voice in any process that we are moving forward. So it’ll depend largely on what tribes want to do, but certainly we want to make sure that we can address those issues. One of the things that we’ve been very adamant about is ensuring that, with all of the trauma that is welling up around this issue, we have the services people need to get through all of that.

With the Build Back Better package stalled, people are worried about the lack of major climate legislation being passed. What are some of the climate wins we have been able to achieve this year?

We’ve made tremendous strides to advance wind, solar, and geothermal projects on public lands and waters, because we know we need to transition to a clean energy economy. We recently kicked off a resale for the New York Bight; we have worked to advance leasing offshore between New York and New Jersey, and we feel very confident about the idea that it will create thousands of union jobs. And this ambitious target of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 is so doable. Then onshore, we have moved ahead with wind, solar, geothermal, and transition projects on public land. I visited a large solar farm near Palm Springs, CA, and they’re getting ready to break ground on a battery project so folks can continue to use solar power after the sun goes down. We have a lot of wins, and it’s something we work on every single day.

What are your top goals going into year two of the administration?

    I am particularly eager to implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and get money out the door that will directly benefit the lives of people across this country. The infrastructure law will help advance so many of the goals of the Department, from addressing legacy pollution and mitigating drought and wildfire risk, to ensuring Tribal Nations have the resources they need to thrive. As we move these goals forward, my team and I are intentionally doing so with an eye toward equity, inclusion, and environmental justice, so that we develop programs and policies which address the disproportionately high and adverse health, environmental, and economic impacts that burden historically marginalized communities.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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