Most Americans are probably familiar with Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Disney’s distorted version of Pocahontas. They may have heard of gold medalists Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills for their athletic footprints and the Navajo Code Talkers, who devised a military code based on the Navajo language to help defeat the Japanese during World War II. Beyond that, the remaining slate of nationally known Native Americans remains sparse, stereotyped and invisible. And almost entirely male.
That’s changing with Deb Haaland, having made history as one of the first Native American women elected to the House of Representatives in 2018. President Joe Biden’s appointment of her as United States secretary of the interior heralds a tremendous opportunity — a new page for Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native island communities. It represents hope for undoing destructive policies of the previous presidential administrations. But most of all, it represents renewed hope for the land and for the Indigenous nations of this country.
Since the Department of Interior was established in 1849, none of the secretaries have been members of a tribal nation. This in a country where Native Americans have not only been systematically ignored, misunderstood and mistreated since the beginning, but where tribal nations were placed under the responsibility of the department that oversees the management of a wide range of natural resources on public lands, including honoring treaty responsibilities to Native peoples.
It may have been considered an improvement when tribal affairs transferred from the Department of War to the then-new Department of Interior 170 years ago. The reality is the decimation of the Native populations continued. Treaties were broken or not honored, treaties that stipulated for medical and educational support. That education came through the process of assimilation in the boarding schools and the erasure of Native identity and culture — to the point that as late as the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to speak the Navajo language, lest I get punished for it.
During the summer when I lived with my paternal grandmother, we walked 3 miles to the windmill to wash our hair and clothes. Water, wood and coal were hauled from a distance to her home. Electric power lines ran not even a mile from her house, yet she used kerosene lamps for light, wood to cook with and coal to warm her home in the winter. My grandparents and relatives then and now still live with many of the conditions that enabled the coronavirus to spread rapidly and widely this past year, infecting and taking many lives — poverty, lack of clean water, food deserts, poor infrastructure, inadequate medical services and resources — conditions that lead to the impoverishment of the mind and spirit.
I and many of my fellow Native Americans believe Biden’s appointment of Haaland is monumental. Now that she has been confirmed, she holds a major seat at the table of American government. Her confirmation has the potential to transform past injustices, to build a more equitable government in which Native Americans, who hold a large voting bloc, gain a voice. It’s an opportunity to bring Indigenous thinking to the stewardship of the land, water, air and the ecosystem, and address the negative impact of the destruction of cultural and sacred sites on and near Native homelands. It’s a chance to consider more carefully interests in public lands that impact Native land and resources.
Deb Haaland’s confirmation also brings to the forefront the image of the resilient and intrepid Native American woman elected as lawmaker in one of the most powerful countries and democracies. Her unique background has the potential to benefit all Americans in the kind of leadership derived from having a sense of community in policy and decision-making.
I first met Deb Haaland in Norman, Oklahoma, at the 1992 inaugural Returning the Gift Native Writers’ Festival when we were beginning writers. Haaland’s bright personality and easy demeanor made for friendly conversation. We connected over how our lives overlapped — our shared Laguna Pueblo heritage, our strong mothers and that we’d graduated from the same high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. By the end of the gathering, we exchanged addresses. I thought our friendship was a passing moment, so I was surprised when I received her letter. She was excited that her application to study at Swansea in the U.K. was approved. We corresponded, but eventually our lives took separate directions.
My path led me to write against the invisibility of Native people through poetry, stories and essays. Deb’s path led her to use her gifts in the legislative process. In the early 2000s, I co-edited, “Sister Nations,” an anthology of Native American women writing. Haaland submitted a poignant short story about a daughter witnessing the end of her mother’s life journey as a moment of grace. I remembered our earlier conversations about our mothers, their resilience and even their severity, our shared cultures and the matriarchal societies we’d grown up in where women held leadership roles in the family and didn’t have to fight for their place.
From these societies come the voices of women who strive to make a difference in government, literature, law, science, medicine and education. The Laguna stories of time immemorial tell of sisters who create the world through the power of their thoughts and a courageous woman who helps her community during times of great distress. The Diné stories tell of a sacred woman who was a lawgiver and brought one of the principal blessing ceremonies to create a stable society. From these stories, women are portrayed as intelligent, self-determined, and possessing strength. They demonstrate that women are in charge of their lives and bodies.
My single mother raised six children and once drove us home safely through a blinding blizzard. My aunt saddled her horse and took charge of our livestock at branding time. And my grandmother, without a college degree, became one of the first Navajo teachers. I credit their influences and high expectations for my love of language and stories, and for my success as a poet and librettist.
Haaland brings her Laguna background as one raised with community values, a sense of responsibility for the earth and the resilient spirit of Native communities. The traditional Laguna clothing and jewelry she wears at government occasions is her power suit. It makes her visible to the First Nations of this country; it enables Native Americans to see themselves in her; it symbolizes diversity that makes a nation strong, where Native Americans see a place for themselves and are reminded that they have a voice. And Haaland’s moccasin wraps show that she stands on sturdy legs, ready to accomplish the important work for all Americans.
Laura Tohe is the poet laureate of the Navajo Nation.