This Day In History: March 15

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Deb Haaland is sworn in as Secretary of the Interior. She is the first Indigenous person to serve as a cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

Incoming President Joe Biden announced his nomination of Deb Haaland, first-term congresswoman from New Mexico, to serve as Secretary of the Interior on December 17, 2020. Three months later, the Senate confirmed her for the job by a 51-to-40 vote. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, made history as the first Native American person to oversee the Interior Department.

Created in 1849, the department historically bore responsibility for removing Indigenous people from their ancestral lands. Today, it upholds the government's treaty obligations to 574 federally recognized tribal groups. The department also manages the country's public lands, including 500 million acres—one fifth of the entire nation—and 63 national parks.

In her nominee statement, Haaland pledged to "honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America’s story." She also emphasized the need for cooperation on conservation and green energy production on public lands, even while " fossil energy does, and will continue, to play a major role in America for years to come." In a statement to NPR, Haaland stressed the need for clean energy: "Climate change is the challenge of our lifetime, and it's imperative that we invest in an equitable, renewable energy economy."

Haaland's appointment was a departure from the legacy of her predecessor under the previous administration, Ryan Zinke. Zinke, who rode to work on a horse, oversaw the deregulation of public lands, including opening up national monuments to oil and gas drilling.

Haaland was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018. Her journey to congress was an unconventional one. The daughter of  two military veterans, she struggled with addiction and poverty as a young woman. She graduated from college at age 33, and started a salsa canning business to support herself as a single mother before earning her law degree. She became deeply involved in grassroots politics in New Mexico, and served as an organizer, canvasser and chair of the state democratic party before her election to congress in 2018, at the age of 57. As interior secretary, she has shone a spotlight on issues rarely addressed before, including an initiative to understand the legacy of the U.S. government’s troubled Native American boarding schools, and one to pursue justice for missing and murdered Indigenous people.