Deb Haaland, who served as the U.S. representative for New Mexico's 1st congressional district from 2019 to 2021, is in the habit of making headlines and history.
On March 15, 2021, President Joe Biden confirmed her as the Secretary of the Interior. What makes this even more remarkable is that she is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary – ever.
Haaland is a proud member of the Pueblo of Laguna, one of the nineteen Pueblos that call New Mexico home. The Laguna have a long history in the Southwest and still continue many of their ancient traditions and culture on those lands.
Pueblo Culture and Values: “We are Not Relics of the Past”
Haaland’s grandparents, who were taken away from their families as children and sent to boarding school under federal forced assimilation policies, still maintained the Laguna culture, which was a huge part of her childhood.
“My mom ensured my siblings and I were taught our Pueblo values from a young age,” shares Haaland.
Though Haaland grew up in a military family moving all across the country, she spent summers with her grandparents in Mesita, one of Laguna Pueblo’s six villages, where they lived without running water and electricity.
“I would irrigate cornfields with my grandpa and watch my grandma cook bread, beans, and chile through the kitchen window,” Haaland remembers. “Those experiences taught me to respect the Earth and value our resources.”
Haaland and her family participated in feast days – a tradition in which they celebrate the patron saint of their village with dance. They open up their homes to share food, stories, and prayers with each other.
“This storytelling is how I came to understand the importance of the food we cook, the fields we tend, and even the very sad parts of our history,” states Haaland.
Feast days exemplify the Pueblo culture – a culture in which they welcome everyone, take care of one another, and take the time to show their gratitude to their relatives and community.
“It’s these values that are the foundation for the way that I approach my job and the basis of why I believe public policy should benefit everyone and not just a few powerful people,” Haaland articulates.
Image Source: NPR, Jim Watson/AP
Turning Life Experience into Progressive Policy
Haaland remembers interviewing her grandmother during college for a writing assignment, and she shared the trauma of being separated from her family and being forced to live at boarding school, away from her traditional home.
“It was an exercise in healing for her and a profound lesson for me: everything that she sacrificed and lived through enabled me to strive to be anything I wanted to be. I embodied the dream she had for her family,” says Haaland.
“That resilience gives me hope for the future, and I feel that we are at a turning point in our country where indigenous knowledge is once again valued for the experience and understanding that our people gained throughout millennia of caring for our people and the Earth. We are not invisible. We are not relics of the past.”
Like many Native people, Deb Haaland’s life has not been easy – she struggled with homelessness, addiction, relied on food stamps to feed her family, and raised her child as a single mom. Those struggles give her perspective.
As a Representative for New Mexico for two years, Deb Haaland worked on progressive policy for environmental issues, renewal energy, and preserving indigenous lands.
“My vision is to have an impact that helps people thrive, protects our resources, and leaves a livable planet for future generations,” Haaland explains.