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"We Are Meant To Lead" - A Reflection on Deb Haaland Becoming Secretary of the Interior

March 16, 2021 | 4 min read

"We Are Meant To Lead" - A Reflection on Deb Haaland Becoming Secretary of the Interior

This moment is profound.

Tonight, I witnessed Deb Haaland  (Laguna Pueblo) 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.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is sworn in before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jim Watson/Pool via AP)

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 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 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 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 from 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 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 Interior, Carl Schurz, still gives me chills of terror: “The alternative of civilization or extermination is immediately before them...If the Indians are to live at all, they must learn to live like white men.” The legacy of government-funded boarding schools, forced adoption, so-called “Indian education” attacked our communities and our children.

I was in the 2nd grade when the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed that allowed some relief from policies that made our way of life illegal. The legacy of these policies lives on 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, with the racial inequality 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—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 within 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. 

Tonight, in the watch party hosted by NDN Collective, Deb Haaland said, “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.”

Today, we know that 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 hears our ancestors speaking.  We are meant to lead. We are meant to do more than just survive. We can be profound.

Meet The Author: Dawn Knickerbocker
Dawn Knickerbocker 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. Dawn brings her experience in philanthropy and in supporting Native communities. She holds a B.A. in organizational management and completed graduate work in social impact and human rights practice.  You can read more about her on her page.


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