(Caption: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during her swearing in ceremony with Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo credit: Tami Heilemann, Department of the Interior)
Former Rep. Deb Haaland made history on March 15 when she was confirmed as U.S. interior secretary, marking the first time an Indigenous person has been appointed to a federal cabinet post.
Haaland's appointment followed intense advocacy by Indigenous activists, who see her stewardship as critical to advancing Native issues after a long history of oppression under the Interior Department.
"Even when we think about the history of the Department of the Interior, the way in which the federal government has attempted the genocide, erasure of Native people, and the Department of the Interior really being one of the major vehicles that that did that work," Leah Salgado, deputy director of IllumiNative, an Indigenous-led nonprofit aiming to increase visibility of Native nations, told us. "To have a native person now took way too long, but to lead that department is a revolutionary act, I think, no matter any way that you cut it."
In an interview on 'This Week In Social Justice,' a weekly streaming show presented by News Beat podcast, Salgado said Haaland's ascension is critical for the future of Native people in the United States, the lands they protect, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Natives and other marginalized groups, and the continued fight over Indigenous rights.
Here's a clip from our interview with Salgado, including a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity. You can watch the entire stream here.
Deb Haaland as Interior Secretary
Leah Salgado: "Well, my name is Leah Salgado, I'm Pascua Yaqui, I'm a native woman from Tucson, Arizona. And I'm coming to you from the lands of the Piscataway people in Washington, DC, where Secretary Haaland began her first day today officially as a secretary, and I can't even begin to talk about how wonderful it is that this moment happened. Even when we think about the history of the Department of the Interior, the way in which the federal government has attempted the genocide, erasure of Native people. And the Department of the Interior really being one of the major vehicles that that did that work, and to have a Native person now took way too long, but to lead that department is a revolutionary act, I think, no matter any way that you cut it. Even thinking about the way that this whole process happened, Native people in Nevada, and Arizona, in Wisconsin, and Minnesota showed up in record numbers because they understood the significance of the election in November."
"And then it was the organizing on the ground and the advocacy of thousands, literally thousands of activists that got Deb Haaland nominated for Interior Secretary. And then through all of the work that a lot of Republican senators who are in the pockets of oil and gas, trying to stop her nomination, got her confirmed. So I think it's like a beautiful moment when we think about history. But it's also even more beautiful when we think about everything that it took to get us here, and the people that sacrificed who were going door to door in the midst of a pandemic to make sure that it happened. So it's significant on all kinds of levels. And I'm really excited about it."
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Why Secretary Haaland's Appointment Is So Important
News Beat: So there's so many issues, obviously, as you mentioned, that need to be confronted, especially around Native issues. Especially because of the amount of power that the interior has. So can you talk about some of the top priorities that you see Deb Haaland executing on as she takes over this department that historically, as you mentioned, has has done more to endanger Native people than actually support them?
LS: "Yeah. So I think first and foremost—you were talking about the COVID-19 bill that passed through Congress, I think it's really important for us to realize that for tribes who were included as part of that plan, the office that's going to be overseeing the distribution of those dollars, it's going to be the Department of Interior. And so Secretary Haaland is going to play a big role in helping ensure tribes have access to those funds, because I think a lot of people don't even realize is that when the pandemic first started a year ago, tribes and Native communities were left out of that original COVID bill. It was through the advocacy of Congresswoman Haaland at the time and Congresswoman [Sharice] Davids, where Native people did have access to funds. We've seen Native people and tribes continuously have problems getting access to vaccines, to serve their communities. And so to have a Native person who's going to be in charge of making sure that money is distributed in a way that's equitable, in a way that's meaningful, is really important. And we can't underscore the significance of that."
"I think even when we look at things like Biden's memo to stop the Keystone [XL] pipeline, when we look at the pause on leases for new drilling sites, those are all places that impact Native people, and the Department of the Interior is really going to play a role in ensuring that the voices of tribal leaders are part of conversations around that. And I think for advocates like me, who have worked in D.C. or worked in policy, part of the hardest job that we have going into Congresspeople's offices, meeting with staff or meeting with folks who are supposed to know who we are, in having to explain to them the 101 of why tribes are treated differently, about treaty rights, to give them the 101 to see us as human, that takes up half the meeting. For the person that's going to be in charge of making some of these decisions, being a Native person who not just was in Congress, but who also worked within tribes, who worked in community, that takes away half of that burden that we had originally. And it's important for us to look at that. But I think what also a lot of Native activists are really excited about is the fact that a lot of fights that we have currently around land and water and sacred sites are fights that have continued to happen, because with Ryan Zinke, the other secretaries of Interior, they didn't respect tribal sovereignty, they did everything that they could to undermine the ability of tribes to protect their land, and their water and sacred sites."
"And so now we have a proven advocate who's in that seat who understands the importance of tribes being there, making decisions. And I for one am really excited that we have someone who actually cares about the land, that understands the importance of land, that understands the importance of clean air, of clean water, not just for Native people, but for all Americans being in that seat, because I think the reason why there was so much pushback from some of these senators, by some of these lobbyists, is because they know she's not in their pocket. She's never taken money from them, they don't have the same kind of access, they've been living in a world where they have free rein to do whatever they want when it comes to drilling, when it comes to putting profits over people. And to have Deb Haaland there, she's not what they want. And she's not who they expect to work with. And I think they're going to be in for a rude awakening as she's able to ensure that the lives of everyday people are protected. And that these corporations don't have access like they used to."
Drilling on Public Lands & America's Troubled History of Uranium Mining
NB: We could go down the list of all the different issues. And some of them you addressed. In terms of her confirmation, as you said, revolutionary. One of the things for me when I when I try to do research, and I try to educate myself about about history here, especially with the interior department, has been mining, uranium mining, in particular. Deb Haaland has some strong stances on that. Unless you do the research, the common person isn't even going to hear about this stuff. So if you wouldn't mind just talking a little bit about that shameful legacy, specifically, with uranium mining?
LS: "Sure, I can. Let me preface this by saying this, you aren't alone in not knowing this history. Twenty-seven states here don't mention Native people at all in their K through 12 curriculum. Of the states that do, 87% of them never mentioned Native people post-1900. So what we actually see is the erasure of Native people from this history. I think in a large part because it doesn't fit this really neat narrative about who this country is. And so there's been a lot of really specific work to whitewash our history as a country. So you're not alone. I think that's part of the work that we do when we talk about representation. When we talk about Native visibility. It's really to think about: How do we ensure that folks like you are actually learning true history. That you're getting a truthful understanding of what this country is. For some context, the Department of Interior oversees public lands, oversees the Bureau of Indian education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and I want to talk a little bit about the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Because it has a very painful history, where that department that dealt with tribes was actually housed under the Department of War before the Department of the Interior was created. So when you take that piece of history, it puts into context, the entire way in which the federal government—that the mindset that they've had towards Native people it was it within the Department of War. When we look at the Bureau of Indian Education, which now oversees many different schools on different lands, that was the primary vehicle for the forced assimilation schools, the boarding schools that are a deep part of this country's history. So the DOI when it was created was really an opportunity to manage the westward expansion of the United States as this country came to be. And a big part of that Western expansion was actually the forced removal of Native people from our lands, in particular, for the access to resources that existed on our lands ourselves."
"So when we think about the U.S. government's history with our land and our people, it's one that's been deeply rooted in a consumption-based approach. It wasn't about the stewardship of land, it wasn't about making sure the land was farmed properly, that it was taken care of, that it was seen as an integral part of our country's future. It was looked at as a way to ensure that there were continuous profits for the people at the top. And so the DOI really has been a vehicle of white supremacy for a very long time. We look at mining, that's a deep part of that history as well. When we think about Deb Haaland, the Laguna Pueblo is actually a tribe that has dealt with a uranium mine on their traditional homeland and have seen all the after effects of that. We have tribes that are in Montana who have dealt with gold mining operations that have literally poisoned the water. I think part of the reason why when we talk about the sacredness of land, we have to acknowledge that people live there. This doesn't happen in Beverly Hills or in the Hamptons. This happens where Native people live, and it's something that we're okay with because people don't think about Native Americans, they don't see us as being human. And so it's okay, if there are issues with access to water or if the land is damaged, because it's out of sight, out of mind."
"And so it's really interesting, I think, when we think about Deb Haaland, who's going to be making decisions on new leases for oil or for drilling, who's actually dealt with the repercussions of those decisions. It's not theoretical for her as much as some of these senators talking about this. They don't live in the land where they have runoffs in the water, where they understand the devastating impacts on the health of our children, on themselves. And Deb Halland does. And so I think it's an excellent opportunity for her to bring that experience and knowledge into the department."
The Climate Crisis & Honoring Treaty Obligations
NB: I just have two quick questions, if you don't mind. One has to do, obviously, with the treaty obligations that this country never lives up to. And also, in terms of the climate, I think the stat is that a quarter of all carbon emissions come from public lands. And Indigenous people are the ones that are most impacted. I think back to last summer in Nicaragua, when the Indigenous communities there were hit more than once. And it was only then that people started hearing their stories. So can you just talk about those two issues, the treaty obligations, and the climate impact, and how that disproportionately harms Indigenous people?
LS: "I'm going to start first with the climate impact because I think it's important that we acknowledge that 80% of the world's biodiversity lives in the hands that are managed and stewarded by Indigenous people. And that's for a very important reason. When we think about like the our language and the words that we use to talk about this relationship, we understand that everything that we do is not in a vacuum. It impacts everything, we are all related. There is nothing that exists within this space that isn't impacted by actions that we take. And I think what's beautiful, and what that Deb Haaland has talked about a lot, is about how when you have when she talks about herself as a 35th generation New Mexican, what she's talking about is her ancestors, and their relationship with the land that they're on. And she takes that mindset and looks forward for how we're continuing to build a world where the planet is habitable for future generations. And not just one or two, but seven generations out. This is a native value that's present in a lot of different ways, in a lot of our different cultures. So I think it's important that we acknowledge that when our Alaska relatives, when our relatives right in Washington and Oregon are seeing what's happening when sea levels rise as villages are having to be evacuated as a result of all of that, or when we see that the migration patterns of salmon are impacted by what's going on with the planet. We are the canaries in the coal mine, for lack of a better analogy. We know that things are happening that are wrong. And it's not just going to be like us that are impacted. This is really about how our planet is being impacted. And what's going to happen in the future. And I'm excited that Deb Haaland's there because I think she deeply understands that, and it's not an approach that I think the U.S. has always been known for. And our leaders, right, have not been known. So I think it's important that we acknowledge all of that."
"Secondly, when we talk about the federal trust responsibility, it's really about the lands and the agreements that were signed and codified into law, which, when we think about the recent Supreme Court case, where Muskogee Creek won the lawsuit to say that the treaties are still the law of the land, you can't just get rid of them. Actually, there's a whole swath of land in Oklahoma that still belongs to Creek Nation, that we have to acknowledge, I think what folks don't really understand, is how important it is that tribes have the ability to enact the sovereignty over their land. When we think about Keystone pipeline, for instance, the tribes at the center of that lawsuit were fighting not just for their ability to protect their lands, but also the ability of everyone to have their land protected. Keystone pipeline was going right through the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the biggest water reserves in the United States. So it impacts not just Native people, again impacts millions of Americans who rely on that water, not just to drink and to survive, but also those are the waters that are placed in the fields. Where our vegetables and fruits are grown. It's a really important part of our ecosystem. When we look at Line 3 [pipeline], what's happening in Minnesota, when we look at the Dakota Access Pipeline, what tribes are doing is trying to protect that land and also protect our people. I think one aspect of all of these pipelines that folks don't understand, and the reasons why tribes are so adamantly against them, is because what they bring alongside with them. The 'Man Camps' where non-Native men are responsible for violence against our women, right? And how tribes, in many ways as a result of federal law, are hamstrung and not able to prosecute them in the way that we need them to. And so there's a lot of things that go along with this, but our tribes are sovereign nations."
"The United States government has a nation-to-nation relationship with our tribes, which means that we need to be respected and seen in that way. And I think what is so beautiful about seeing Native people in positions of leadership within this country is that now we understand this paternalistic attitude the U.S. federal government has had towards our people is discouraging and disrespectful. And it set the tone for how they decided to deal with us. And it goes all the way back to this long history. And now as we continue to have folks like Deb Haaland in office who can reset that relationship, or that see us as human beings, people to be respected, it makes some of this work a little bit easier. It doesn't mean that she's going to solve everything. But it does mean the conditions for organizing are so much better than they were three years ago. And that's what we're excited about."