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Explained: Who is Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet Secretary in US history?

Deb Haaland started work as a volunteer and eventually joined the 2012 campaign for Barack Obama. She ran for the position of Governor of New Mexico in 2014 on a ticket that was headed by the state’s Attorney General. 

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 17, 2021 10:58:46 am
Deb HaalandThe US Senate Monday confirmed the appointment of Deb Haaland as the Representative of New Mexico. (File photo)

The US Senate Monday confirmed the appointment of Deb Haaland as the Representative of New Mexico, thereby making her the first Native American Cabinet Secretary. Haaland will lead the Interior Department as Secretary and will be responsible for overseeing the US’s land, sea and natural resources, which includes national parks and public lands. Haaland will also look into the government’s relations with the indigenous communities.

Some observers have called her appointment as historic, since this is the first time that a Native American will head this government department, a cabinet-level position which has been important in mediating between the government and the hundreds of indigenous communities spread across the country.

Before Haaland, the department was led by David Bernhardt who served as the 53rd Secretary of the department under former President Donald Trump. Under Trump, Bernhardt was instrumental in opening up areas for mining and drilling.

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Who is Deb Haaland?

Born in 1960 in Arizona, Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Native American people. In an interview Haaland gave to uPolitics she said that one reason she entered politics is because she wants more Native Americans to get out and vote. Haaland started work as a volunteer and eventually joined the 2012 campaign for Barack Obama. She ran for the position of Governor of New Mexico in 2014 on a ticket that was headed by the state’s Attorney General.

While Haaland’s ticket lost the general election, in 2015 she became the head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party. In 2018 Haaland launched a campaign to win New Mexico’s 1st congressional district and she was also part of the wave of new women who joined the House of Representatives during the 2018 elections.

According to her website, Haaland and Sharice Davids, a fellow Native American woman who was voted into the House during the 2018 elections as well, are the first Native American women to ever serve in the legislative body.

According to The New York Times, some of her first tasks as Secretary will include enacting President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to ban new permits for oil and gas on public lands.

What is the Department of Interior?

The Department of Interior houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education among others. On March 3, 1849, which was the last day of the 30th Congress, a bill was passed to create a Department of Interior that would look into the domestic matters of the country.

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Who are Native Americans?

According to the Department of Interior, when referring to American Indian or Alaska Native persons, it is still appropriate to use the terms “American Indian” and “Alaska Native.” “These terms denote the cultural and historical distinctions between persons belonging to the indigenous tribes of the continental United States (American Indians) and the indigenous tribes and villages of Alaska (Alaska Natives, i.e., Eskimos, Aleuts, and Indians),” the website says.

Further, since the 1970s, the term “Native American” has been used as an alternative to “American Indian.”

What is the nature of the relationship between tribes and the US government?

Today, Native American communities exist all over the US and the government recognises over 600 Indian tribes in the 48 contiguous states and Alaska. The Bureau of Indian Affairs looks into providing funding and services to these federally recognised tribes.

A federally recognised tribe means any American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognised as having a government-to-government relationship with the US. Apart from this, these tribes are also recognised as having certain inherent rights of self-government, which means that they have the right to form their own governments, to make and enforce laws (civil and criminal), establishing and determining membership into the tribe and licensing and regulating activities within their jurisdiction.

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