Little Thunders— This moment is profound
- Published: March 30, 2021
Tonight — Monday, March 15 — I witnessed Deb Haaland, a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior — the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position. I watched every vote come in, and as we got closer and closer to 50 votes, I felt the emotion well up.
This confirmation of Deb Haaland is an incredibly significant shift. I feel the collective joy from Indian Country, the empowerment, the weight of having a person who is one of us running the Department of the Interior.
In the past, the federal government viewed us through the lens of the Department of War. The genocidal policies that have shaped our lives today — which sought to eliminate Native American populations — were effective in subtracting our land, our languages, our relations, our culture and even our sovereignty.
The Department of the Interior was created in 1849 to manage the U.S. westward expansion, which meant that it was designed to “deal with” Native people. Housed under the Department of War at the time, it was a tool of white supremacy. Throughout its history, the office was often a destructive catalyst used against Native people through cruel policies.
These policies are not in the distant past. Within my own lifetime, my ancestral homeland was taken when the government broke up our reservation and sold it to non-Natives. My experience is far from unique. Under the Dawes Act and other tribe-specific allotment acts, we were powerless to resist not only removal from our land, but also the extraction of the land’s natural resources.
It wasn’t just the resources under attack. The Department of the Interior also oversees the U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs. In the 1880s, this department oversaw the government’s attempt to “civilize” Native people by outlawing our traditions and culture. The famous quote from the 13th U.S. Secretary of the Interior still gives me chills of terror: “If Indians are to live at all, they must learn to live like white men. The alternative to civilization is extermination.” The legacy of government-funded boarding schools, forced adoption, so-called “Indian education,” attacked our communities and our children.
I was in the second grade when the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, which allowed some relief from policies that made our way of life illegal. In my own family, we keep working toward healing, remembering our language, telling our stories, even if in secret sometimes.
Deb Haaland’s confirmation at this time in history, when racial inequality is coupled with the climate crisis, could not be more profound. Representation matters, yes, but it is also important to rid this department, this cabinet, of the white supremacy patriarchy, and replace it with Native matriarchy. Native wisdom is at the forefront of what we need to fight for. I am the mother of four Native children. For every Native girl or mother watching, this moment means protection — protection for our children and protection for our land.
As Native people, our intellectual tradition is to view ourselves as an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins with the land. It is often said in our languages that “we are the land.” It is an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as relations. These ancestral teachings are with Deb Haaland; these teachings from the ancestors of this land are foundational to our sovereignty. Through her, we are visible.
I was in a Native American Zoom meeting directly after the confirmation where Deb Haaland said to our group, “It should not have taken 200 years for a Native person to take the helm at Interior, or even be a Cabinet secretary for that matter.” A remarkable Indigenous woman is now the caretaker of the nation’s public lands and waters for the first time in U.S. history.
Today we know the future includes us, for we are the Indigenous people. We are meant to know our languages, our plants, our medicines and our traditions. We are meant to be in relationship with this land. We are meant to care for one another and to raise our children in security and safety with extended communities — many aunties and uncles. We are meant to work with our hearts, our spirits and our hands to create good works. We are meant to live with the rhythm of the moon, the sun and the waters that roam Turtle Island. We are meant to be a part of the seven generations that hear our ancestors speaking. And, we are meant to lead. We are meant to do more than just survive. We can be profound.
*The writer belongs to the Anishinaabe people from White Earth Nation. She is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe from the Ottertail Pillager Band of Indians.