United States Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland is a 35th Generation New Mexican, an enrolled citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and one of the first two Native American Women elected to Congress. On March 15, 2021, she was sworn in as the First Native American Cabinet Secretary.
Haaland was born in Winslow, AZ, in 1960 to two military parents. Her father was a 30-year combat Marine who was awarded the Silver Star Medal during Vietnam, and her mother was in the Navy. Haaland attended 13 different public schools during her childhood, and ultimately graduated from Highland High School in Albuquerque.
Her journey to the Interior Department began in 1994, when she graduated from the University of New Mexico (UNM). Just four days later she gave birth to her child, Somáh. To support her family, she started a small business selling salsa. During this time, she sometimes relied on food stamps or friends who offered temporary housing. “I’ve lived the struggles of every day New Mexicans,” she shared during her election campaign, “I understand that we need a fierce advocate who will fight for our working families, our LGBTQ+ community, our students, our veterans and our seniors.”
Despite her financial hardships, Haaland became the first chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, a Laguna-owned business created to strengthen the Laguna community. In this role, Haaland oversaw business operations for the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico, and advocated for sustainable business practices.
In 2006, Haaland earned a degree in Indian Law from the UNM School of Law, and in 2012 she joined the campaign for Barack Obama. She ran for Governor of New Mexico in 2014, and a year later, she became the head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, making her the first Native American woman to be elected to lead a state party. In 2018, Haaland launched a campaign to win New Mexico’s 1st congressional district, and she was also part of the wave of new women who joined the House of Representatives during the 2018 elections.
Haaland’s confirmation is both historic and symbolic, as the role of the Interior Department has historically disenfranchised the United States’ Indigenous peoples. In addition to managing the country’s public lands, seas, endangered species and natural resources, the Department of Interior is responsible for the government’s relations with Native American tribes.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” she shared on Twitter. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”