LOS ANGELES, Dec 18, 2020 (AFP) – A single mother who overcame alcoholism, poverty and prejudice to become one of the United States’ first Native American congresswomen, Deb Haaland capped a remarkable rise Thursday with her nomination as the nation’s next interior secretary.
If confirmed, her historic appointment by President-elect Joe Biden as the first indigenous cabinet secretary would see Haaland run the agency responsible for roughly one-fifth of land in the United States — including its many tribal reservations.
Haaland, 60, who hails from New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo tribe and once started a company that made salsa dip to support herself and her young daughter as she struggled through law school, has just won reelection to a second term in Congress from the southwestern US state.
Her nomination comes on the back of a wave of support from leading Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, environmentalists and tribal leaders.
“We believe it is critical at this time for the first Native American to serve in the president’s cabinet, so we can begin to shift the focus back… to a value system that honors Mother Earth,” entertainment stars Cher and Jane Fonda wrote in an open letter co-signed by female Native American chiefs and business leaders last week.
“We believe that person is Congresswoman Deb Haaland.”
Born in Winslow, Arizona, where her grandfather worked on the railroad as part of a federal government policy of “cultural assimilation” for Native Americans, Debra Anne Haaland comes from a military family.
Her father JD “Dutch” Haaland was a decorated Marine and her mother Mary served in the Navy.
The family moved a lot, as many American military families do. Haaland says she attended 13 different schools.
But the customs and traditions of the Laguna Pueblo provided stability in her youth.
Haaland spent summers with her grandparents, first in Winslow and later in New Mexico, where she helped them water the fields and bake bread in a house without running water.
She has remained active in her tribe, and once served as the chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, responsible for its three casinos on the reservation.
Haaland, who has spoken publicly about quitting drinking more than 30 years ago, made ends meet while in law school with the help of student loans and food stamps.
After failing the bar exam by a hair, Haaland launched herself into politics, working her way up in the local Democratic Party.
She started in the trenches as a volunteer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 — making endless cold calls to rally Native Americans to vote.
Since then, she has not stopped campaigning: She worked full-time for Barack Obama, and on dozens of local and state campaigns. She ran for lieutenant governor and served one term as the state party chair.
In November 2018, running on a progressive agenda including the use of clean energy, health care for all and immigration reform, she won election to represent New Mexico’s 1st congressional district.
In doing so she became the first Native American woman elected to Congress, along with Sharice Davids of Kansas.
Since then she has frequently spoken out for minorities, the poor and Native Americans.
Haaland saluted the decision this July by Washington’s NFL team to drop its “Redskins” name — a word widely criticized as a racist slur against Native Americans.
She has spearheaded legislation to tackle the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, and fought for extra funding for Native American communities badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
“My ancestors have sacrificed a tremendous amount to keep my customs and traditions for me,” she told AFP during her first Congress run.
“So I want to make sure that I am bringing that perspective to the table in anything I do.” amz/bgs/bfm Agence France-Presse