On Dec. 17, 2020, Democrat Deb Haaland was selected by then-President-elect Joe Biden to join his Presidential Cabinet as the United States Secretary of the Interior. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held Haaland’s confirmation hearings on Feb. 23 and 24 and voted 11-9 on March 4 to advance her nomination. The Senate confirmed Haaland on Mar. 15 with a 51-40 vote, making her the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
As the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Haaland will head the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), which works to conserve and manage the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage and provides scientific information about natural resources and related hazards.
The DOI has eleven bureaus, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, and the National Park Service. In addition to the bureaus, the following several offices also fall under the Office of the Secretary: the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, the Office of the Solicitor, and Office of the Inspector General. As Secretary of the Interior, Haaland has access to a budget of $12.8 billion for the 2021 fiscal year and a staff of over 70,000 employees in 2,400 locations across the country.
On Mar. 17, two days after her confirmation, Haaland held a virtual all-staff forum attended by more than 15,000 agency employees, in which she highlighted the work done in each of the bureaus and offices. She also joined virtual meetings with more than a dozen Tribes and Tribal-led organizations and over 40 groups focused on equity and environmental justice. Additionally, she delivered remarks at a virtual Tribal Ocean Summit hosted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Debra Anne Haaland was born on Dec. 2, 1960, in Winslow, Arizona. She is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, a federally recognized tribe of Native American Pueblo people in west-central New Mexico. She is a 35th generation New Mexican.
Haaland grew up in a military family. Her mother, Maya Toya, a Native American woman, is a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a federal employee for 25 years at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and her father, Norwegian Minnesotan David “Dutch” Haaland, served in the U.S. Marine Corps. As a military child, Haaland moved frequently, attending 13 different public schools across the U.S. before her family settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she graduated from Highland High School in 1978.
Haaland worked at a local bakery after completing high school. In 1988, she enrolled herself at the University of New Mexico, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1994. A few days after graduating, Haaland gave birth to her daughter, Somáh, and started a salsa business to support her family. At this time, she did not earn enough money and relied on food stamps.
In 2006, Haaland earned a law degree in Indian Law from the University of New Mexico School of Law. Going through law school as a single mother was difficult for Haaland. One of her biggest problems was finding a steady place to live, as she couldn’t afford shelter and relied on friends for a place to stay. “Quite frankly, now that I have a little bit of money, and there were so many times when my daughter could have benefited from a better paycheck, and she sacrificed right along with me, so … I tried to help her out, too,” she said.
Although her financial situation has improved, Haaland says her time as a struggling single mother helped guide her decisions as a Congresswoman.“I’m always gonna fight for folks,” Haaland said.
Sometime between 2006 and 2012, Haaland became the first chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors. The corporation is a Laguna-owned business created to strengthen the community and its economy, and Haaland oversaw business operations for the second largest tribal gaming enterprise. From Jan. 2013 to Nov. 2015, she served as the tribal administrator for the San Felipe Pueblo.
Initial Political Career
Haaland served as the State’s Vote Director for Native Americans in former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. From 2012 to 2013, she acted as the chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico’s Native American caucus. She ran an unsuccessful campaign for Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico in 2014, losing to the Republican Governor and Lieutenant Governor pair.
In Apr. 2014, Haaland was elected to a two-year term as the Democratic Party of New Mexico chair, the first Native American to hold the position. In her time in the position, New Mexico Democrats regained control of the State House of Representatives and the office of the Secretary of State.
U.S. House of Representatives
After her venture as chair of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, Haaland announced her plans to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district in the 2018 elections. In the Nov. 6 election that year, Haaland defeated former Republican State Representative Janice Arnold-Jones, receiving 59.1% of the vote. Haaland served as the State Representative for New Mexico’s 1st district until she was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior this year.
Haaland was one of the two Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress. She wore traditional Pueblo attire for her swearing-in ceremony in Jan. 2019 and was the first Native woman to preside over the House during a debate on voting and campaign finance. Haaland was appointed to the Committee on Armed Services, the Committee on Natural Resources, and the Committee on Oversight and Reform. She was also the Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.
After her win, Haaland outlined her goals for the country while she was in Congress. “There are people hurting in this country,” she said. “We have to find solutions to make their lives better, right? We – our children need a quality public education. We have to move toward renewable energy in a big way here in America. And people need health care.” On Dec. 17, 2020, when Biden’s transition team announced Haaland as his pick for Secretary of the Interior, they called Haaland a “barrier-breaking public servant who has spent her career fighting for families, including in Tribal Nations, rural communities, and communities of color.” They remarked that she will be “ready on day one to protect our environment and fight for a clean energy future.”
The current administration takes a much different approach to natural resources and climate change than the previous one. Biden has promised to shift the U.S. away from climate-warming fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources.
Haaland also believes this to be a priority. “Climate change is the challenge of our lifetime, and it’s imperative that we invest in an equitable, renewable energy economy,” she said. At her Senate hearing, she faced tough questions from Republican colleagues on Biden’s oil and gas leasing “ban” on federal lands, and the projected economic and job losses from the action. Haaland maintained that Biden had not “banned” the practice, rather paused it until the program can be thoroughly reviewed.
During the hearing, Haaland said she will work hard to bridge party lines and push for bipartisan support of policies. She further said that, as Secretary of the Interior, she would, “move climate change priorities, tribal consultation, and a green economic recovery forward.”“I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected land,” Haaland said. “I am honored and ready to serve.”