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In early 2021, Deb Haaland was sworn in as the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, making her the first Native American cabinet secretary in the history of the United States. A tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo, she was raised in New Mexico, a state that has been home to 35 generations of her family. After becoming the first woman elected to the board of directors for the Laguna nation's development corporation, she managed the state's second largest tribal gaming enterprise. In 2018, she became one of the first two Indigenous women elected to serve in the U.S. Congress. 

Haaland spoke with HISTORY.com about how the past informs her life and her work.

What ways does history influence your decision making in your current role?

We never want to repeat the bad parts of history, right? In fact, it makes sense for the Interior Department to correct bad history where we can and move our agency and country forward. For example, our Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative seeks to bring closure to generations of Indigenous people whose family members were victims of that awful policy era in our country: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

We are in a new era now, and we must do all we can to live up to [the agency's] mission of managing and conserving America’s public lands, natural resources and cultural heritage; and honor the trust and treaty obligations to the nation’s 574 federally recognized Indian tribes. My hope is that future generations will look back on THIS history and say that we did some things right.

Could you elaborate on those treaty obligations?

When Europeans first came to this continent in the late 1400s, there were thousands of Indian tribes who had lived here for millennia. Once it became apparent that this was a continent the Europeans wanted to essentially take over, they commenced to take land away from tribes. In that process, many treaties, executive orders, acts of Congress were made—between various tribes and the United States—that work to displace Native Americans from their ancestral homelands. Today, the U.S. federal government still has an obligation to live up to all of those treaties, those executive orders, those acts of Congress, to ensure that tribal nations can thrive, that their children can be educated, that they have housing to live in and that we are working to help them with their economic development.

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Are there any historical events or policies you look to for inspiration or lessons?

Tribal leader George Gillette (left foreground), chairman of the Fort Berthold Indian Tribal Business Council, covered his face to hide tears as U.S. Secretary of Interior Julius Krug signed the 1948 Garrison Dam agreement, by which the North Dakota-based tribe sold 155,000 acres of its most fertile ancestral land to be flooded for a government dam project.

Tribal leader George Gillette (left foreground), chairman of the Fort Berthold Indian Tribal Business Council, covered his face to hide tears as U.S. Secretary of Interior Julius Krug signed the 1948 Garrison Dam agreement, by which the North Dakota-based tribe sold 155,000 acres of its most fertile ancestral land to be flooded for a government dam project.

There is a 1948 photo I look at from time to time of Chairman [George] Gillette, of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation of North Dakota, and he is weeping into his hand. In the photo, Secretary of the Interior [Julius] Krug signs away 150,000 acres of the tribe’s land to build a dam and flood their most fertile ancestral land. Our country, as a whole, can learn from the history that this photo represents. President Theodore Roosevelt, who moved our country to act on conservation and realized the power of the outdoors, is inspiring, but I also understand the shortcomings in his actions. Yes—conserve; but also, yes, consult with Indian tribes and stakeholders.

How does your own personal history influence you?

Both my parents were public servants. For my dad, the Marine Corps came first, because it put a roof over our heads (said my dad). My mother was dedicated to Indian students for 25 years. I am committed to our country and this democracy because that is how I was raised. I would say this history influences me every day of my life.

What’s your favorite historical moment?

I visited Bears Ears National Monument twice. Each time, I imagine what it was like for our ancestors, and I see it—in the clothing, the food and the tools my ancestors left behind. My favorite historical moment would be an average day in the life of one of my ancestors. I have to believe that their average day was one of ceremony, hard work and community; also prior to colonization, where women were equals.

Who are three historical figures you’d like to invite to dinner, and why?

Jim Thorpe, because he was the greatest athlete who ever lived. I’d want to tell him that he has inspired generations of us to run and be proud of our heritage.

Hereditary Chief Edward Moody of the Nuxalk Nation, who said: “We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can't speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees.” This speaks from a perspective that champions true equality and true equity. If we had dinner together, I would ask him about his upbringing and gain his knowledge about how to have the most respect for nature.

Shirley Chisholm, because she was unafraid and had the wisdom to know her own strength. 

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