There is a quote: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” It hails from a tribe unknown. It speaks volumes about about incorporating ideas and wisdom into all conversation. It speaks of a trust in knowledge and an eye toward progress. It encourages a mindfulness — or at least a thoughtfulness in the consideration.
The news Thursday that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has chosen Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department is a powerful step toward both understanding stewardship and creating a moment in history.
According to people familiar with the decision, the Democrat from New Mexico would be the first Indigenous American appointed to a Cabinet secretary position.
Haaland would not only head the federal agency most responsible for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Indigenous people, but would play a central role in implementing the president-elect’s ambitious environmental and climate change agenda. As head of the agency that oversees 500 million acres of public lands, including national parks, oil and gas drilling sites, and endangered species habitat, she would be entrusted to restore federal protections to vast swathes of land and water that the Trump administration has opened up to drilling, mining, logging and construction.
And, of course, Haaland would oversee the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, which manages the financial assets of American Indians held in trust.
“It would be an honor to move the Biden-Harris climate agenda forward, help repair the government to government relationship with Tribes that the Trump Administration has ruined, and serve as the first Native American cabinet secretary in our nation’s history,” she said in a statement.
Haaland is a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, one of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
Predictably, the news was met with criticism across social media, but that was — in large part — shouted down by historians, tribal leaders and supporters who said that appointing an Indigenous American to the role would be a milestone in the United States’ scarred history with its tribal people.
It is entirely apropos.
The Interior Department has for much of the nation’s history governed federal lands and often dislodged and abused Indigenous Americans. In 1972, about 500 Indigenous activists took over the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., protesting living standards and broken treaties.
The New York Times on Thursday noted, “It would be a huge moment in American history to have a Native person running our national parks, wildlife, relationships with tribes, antiquities sites. ... It’s a long time coming.”
According to published reports, Haaland was not Biden’s first choice to run the agency, but she was the last and best choice. In the days after the election, he was believed to have been leaning toward Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico and longtime friend who has spent his career pushing to conserve wilderness, according to people close to the transition team.
According to Politico, a coalition of congressional Democrats, Indigenous Americans and Hollywood celebrities kicked off a campaign urging Biden to appoint Haaland. (Actor and environmental advocate Mark Ruffalo posted a video on Twitter with tribal leaders speaking in support of Haaland.) And the Lakota People’s Law Action Center launched a petition, supported by more than 120 tribal leaders, in support of Haaland.
“Like no year prior, 2020 has shown us what happens when we fail to see the importance of putting proper leaders in position to safeguard society,” the petition read.
She is a leader worthy of such a position.
Haaland made history in 2018, when she and Sharice Davids, of Kansas, became the first two Indigenous American women elected to Congress.
Haaland campaigned in 2018 against the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies and promoted Indigenous sovereignty as a “35th-generation New Mexican.” She has said many of the issues affecting tribal communities, such as low-wage jobs and violence against women, afflict other groups as well.
During the past two years, Haaland has served on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department.
We have forgotten what matters to the lands of our country. And while we may have forgotten what that stewardship looks like, we are involving people — and Deb Haaland, in particular — who will remind us we must understand in order to grow.