“My first line was, Are you for real? Am I dreaming?” said Suina, who also started to cry. Her daughter and son rushed to her side. “In our native language, they asked, ‘Why are you crying, Mom?’ And I told them these were tears of joy.”
Tears seemed to rain all over Indian Country after Haaland’s selection was announced Dec. 17.
American Indians celebrated in the New Mexican Pueblos where Haaland grew up, in the sprawling Navajo Nation farther to the north, in Dakota country that extends into Canada and on the tiny strip of land where the Wampanoag tribe first greeted Europeans who made the pilgrimage to the Americas centuries ago before they founded a nation that sought to obliterate Indigenous people.
Within minutes, Haaland’s name started trending on Twitter. On Instagram, Lani Mekeel, an Oglala Lakota feminist who hosts a podcast, posted a split-screen video in which she raised a fist and wept while listening to a speech Haaland had delivered at the Democratic National Convention in August.
On the news show “Democracy Now,” Winona Laduke, an activist and member of the Dakota people in Minnesota, opened her remarks about the importance of Biden’s choice by ululating, a powerful wail of affirmation.
The emotional outpouring arose from a people who have internalized their brutal place in U.S. history: betrayal, wars, massacres, stolen lands, a forced death march of nearly 50,000 people for thousands of miles from the South to the Midwest, where they were sequestered on assigned land.
On top of all that, children were often required to attend reeducation camps where “instructors” severed them from their native tongues and culture.
With so little political representation in federal government over nearly 2½ centuries since the United States became a nation, Indigenous people were astonished that a woman who spoke a Native language and grew up on tribal land might finally represent them on the presidential Cabinet.
At the Democratic National Convention, Haaland didn’t shy away from that history in explaining why her people deserved a seat at the table. “My people survived centuries of slavery, genocide and brutal assimilation policies,” she said, “but throughout our past, tribal nations fought for and helped build this country.”
In addition to being a steward over Indian Country, Haaland would oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of Interior.
On many impoverished reservations, residents often live in small homes with no running water. A rich cultural heritage mixes with the despair of the poor. Rates of disease such as diabetes and hypertension soar in Indian Country, along with alcoholism, suicide and, now, covid-19.
As Suina’s family clapped and shared celebratory hugs, she thought of relatives in her Pueblo who were hospitalized and, in one case, died after contracting covid. Her mind swirled with expectations.
“Once I was like, okay this is for real, I let a big breath out and said oh my God … this is possible. Oh my gosh, that is possible,” Suina said. “We can set something in place that can assure our stewardship over our land.”
“I know it’s historic, but why did it take us so much time to make history?” said Lynn Trujillo, the Pueblo Indian speaker and cabinet secretary for New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs who broke the news to Suina and others on the Zoom call. “This was another ray of sunshine that was coming through. The emotional, the very visceral reaction that people were having — crying can symbolize so many things like joy, promise, hope, relief that says finally.”
But others recognized that Haaland would face a daunting challenge in balancing the preservation of cultural sites with energy development preferred by corporations that generates royalties for taxpayers and, in some cases, tribes.
“It’s going to be tough for her,” said Geoffrey Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. Haaland has to navigate various branches of government, and whatever success she achieves will depend on whom she “puts around her and how much the president supports her and whether the courts will support her,” the chief said.
‘Promise, hope and relief that says finally’
As she listened to Haaland’s words with her eyes watering and a hand over her trembling mouth, Lani Mekeel wasn’t thinking about political challenges.
“I was like, oh my God, this is huge,” Mekeel said. “It took my emotions to a whole new level. I felt so much that I didn’t think I was capable of feeling over a politician. It’s such a huge moment for us.”
Native American women had a special reason to be emotional. Haaland said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this month, before her selection, that addressing the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women would be one of her highest priorities.
Nearly half of all Native American women — 46 percent — have experienced rape, violence or intimidation by an intimate partner, according to the Department of Justice. The homicide rate of Native American women on reservations is more than 10 times the national average. Often the perpetrators are White Americans who slip into Indian Country.
“It’s really difficult to put into words, because it means so much to us,” Nikki Pitre, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth and a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, whose land straddles the mountains of Washington and Idaho. “She may not even know just how big an impact she’s having on young, Native professionals. It just means so much.”
Reflecting what many African Americans said after Barack Obama was elected president, Pitre spoke of what Haaland’s selection means for children.
“To have my daughter see that this is normal, to have a Native woman at highest level of the U.S. government, is so important,” she said.
Pitre acknowledged that Haaland, if confirmed, will face high expectations from the nation's 574 federally recognized tribes, along with the burden of being the first Indigenous leader of Interior.
In her interview with The Post, Haaland signaled she is ready to fight.
“This Trump administration has essentially gutted everything that would help Indian Country to move forward, and I think there’s a lot of repair to be done,” Haaland said.
Ryan Zinke and a horse named Tonto
President Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, freely used a name that many Native Americans find offensive.
In May 2017, Zinke was touring an area in the Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah when he encountered several Native Americans on horseback.
Zinke spoke to one man about the horse that he borrowed from the U.S. Park Service and rode to Interior’s headquarters in Washington on his first day of work. It was a gelding named Tonto, Zinke proudly said.
For many Native Americans, Tonto, a fictional character who was the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, was an insult. Not only does his name translate to the word “stupid” in Spanish, but his speech and subordinance to the White hero grated.
Actor Johnny Depp reprised the role for a 2013 movie, to the disdain of Native Americans.
Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa tribe member and UCLA professor, was offended by the way Depp’s character talked. “That sort of monosyllabic stuttering, uttering. Hollywood Indian-speak,” Geiogamah said in an interview on NPR.
Around that time, Haaland was strengthening her reputation among Native tribes.
At home in her Pueblo in 2016, she kept seeing posts on her Facebook page from New Mexico residents who traveled to Standing Rock in North Dakota. They were protesting a corporation’s effort to run a pipeline through Native American land.
“I have to go,” Haaland said.
She stayed four days and three nights, serving green chili and tortillas to protesters.
“I know Deb grew up poor just like many of us on Native American lands,” said Jonathan Nez, the president of the Navajo Nation who met Haaland long before she entered politics.
Haaland was raised in the Pueblo of Laguna, 50 miles west of Albuquerque near a sprawling uranium mine.
In that way, Nez said, she can relate to the environmental problems the Navajo are trying to solve. “Over 500 uranium mines and sites that are still open here in the Navajo Nation,” he said. “The federal government came in and took the uranium for bombs and weapons and haven’t cleaned the mines up.”
Nez wants those mines to be cleaned and permanently sealed.
Craig Falcon, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, expects Haaland to “bring to light so many issues that Native people are suffering through.”
He ticked off a list of problems that have plagued Indigenous communities for generations: fights over water rights, treaties, access to public health services, preservation of language.
“One of the most important things I see her accomplishing,” Falcon said, “is helping us protect our natural resources.”
Standing Bear wants Haaland to “repair the government-to-government relationship between Indian nations and the U.S. government,” which he said is severely damaged.
Treaties between tribes and the U.S. government are too often trampled and not honored, the chief said. In his opinion, Haaland will have to work with the legislative, executive and judicial branches to make sure those treaty rights are upheld.
“The federal government has … failed miserably,” Standing Bear said. “She needs to replace the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and have money go directly to tribes rather than the federal bureaucracy.”
Standing Bear realizes he’s asking a lot. “Tribes too often feel like we’re fighting the many-headed hydra of Greek mythology” in the federal government.
Judith Le Blanc, director of Native Organizers Alliance and a citizen of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma, sees Haaland’s nomination as a symbol of hope where there seemed to be none.
“The government’s policy has been to placate, eradicate or exterminate us,” Le Blanc said. “We’ve been erased from history.”
Haaland’s nomination and the rise of Native Americans in political office is showing that “we’re interrupting the narrative. We will not be sidelined or erased,” Le Blanc said.
Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report