For Deb Haaland, two of the most pressing issues before the Interior Department are climate change and violence against Native Americans.
Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, is the first Native American in U.S. history to serve as a Cabinet secretary of a federal agency. One of her first moves after her March confirmation was establishing a Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is a division of the Interior Department that manages most federal programs related to more than 550 Indigenous tribes recognized by the U.S. government.
The MMU brings new leadership to an effort to solve missing persons cases and murders of Native people, Haaland told The 19th. More positions will be added to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services to analyze data and coordinate with families of victims. The new unit will also help coordinate across federal law enforcement agencies.
Tribal leaders, environmental groups and liberal activists had pushed for President Joe Biden to nominate Haaland, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Mexico and well-known climate activist who hails from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.
Even still, Haaland had introduced more bills during her first year in the House that had bipartisan sponsorship than any other first-term lawmaker. In her confirmation hearings, she emphasized her work across the aisle, and said she would be implementing not her own agenda, but Biden’s, which includes a moratorium on new permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands but does not ban fracking outright.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
One of your first moves as interior secretary was establishing a Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. What need do you see for it and when will the unit be up and running?
Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated. The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe and provide closure for families.
Beyond creating the MMU, what do you see as the most pressing things you will need to deal with as interior secretary or decisions you will need to make?
Addressing climate change is crucial to the future of our families, our economy and our country as a whole. President Biden has set ambitious goals that will ensure America and the world can meet the urgent demands of the climate crisis, while empowering our nation’s workers and businesses to lead a clean energy revolution. The Interior Department is hard at work to address the climate crisis, restore balance on public lands and waters, advance environmental justice and invest in a clean energy future.
What do you see as Interior’s role on climate issues?
I believe that a clean energy future is within our grasp in the United States, but it will take all of us and the best-available science to make it happen. I come from New Mexico, and I know how important oil and gas revenues are for state budgets. I also recognize that demand and energy innovations are diversifying, and so are states’ revenue sources and economies. We have to reduce the reliance on the booms and busts of the oil industry. It is my responsibility to ensure that we are managing our nation’s resources effectively. That we are taking care of the land as well as making sure that the American taxpayer is getting a fair return.
I come from a community that has borne the brunt of mineral exploration with impacts to their health, water and the resources needed to survive. As we prioritize the climate crisis, we also have a responsibility to ensure our action on climate change is seen through a lens of environmental justice. That means making sure that we are listening and learning, that impacted communities have a seat at the table and an active role as we consider policies that directly impact them.
The Department of the Interior is in a unique position to be a leader in putting our nation on a path to achieve net-zero emissions, create good-paying jobs in renewable energy and benefit underserved communities.
You had just been reelected to your second term representing New Mexico when Biden named you as his pick to head Interior. Did you have any reservations about switching jobs? What factored into your decision?
I love New Mexico, and the decision to serve in the Biden administration was one that I discussed extensively with my family and close friends. I could not pass up the opportunity to serve an administration and a president who sincerely believes that tackling the climate crisis is not only an urgent priority, but also sees it as a valuable economic opportunity to create millions of good-paying union jobs, strengthen working communities, protect public health and advance environmental justice. I also felt called to serve in this position because of the department’s role in serving Native communities and engaging directly with tribal leaders as we address the health, economic, racial justice and climate crises — all of which disproportionately impact American Indians and Alaska Natives.
What is something about the confirmations process you didn’t know going into it that you do now?
I’ve always made a point to build productive relationships with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress, so I was prepared to reconnect with my Senate colleagues and even to meet some for the first time. I expected our meetings to be geared toward heavy policy discussions and nuts and bolts, but I was also pleasantly surprised to have more personal conversations about our paths in public service, families and backgrounds.
The Interior Department oversees the national parks system — do you have a favorite park, or a favorite memory of visiting one?
I don’t think I could choose an absolute favorite because each one is so unique, and I haven’t been to them all … yet. Some of my favorite memories visiting National Parks and Monuments were when my child Somáh and I would hike together. It was my way of sharing with her how important nature is to sustain us both physically, but also spiritually. It is also important to me that we recognize that many of these sites are sacred, living spaces, not just places with ancestral ruins.
What makes up your “news diet”? How would you advise your constituent to make sure they are consuming factual information when there is so much misinformation out there?
I respect the press and value the role they play in our democracy. I encourage everyone to focus on news reported directly by news sources that have robust fact-checking and editing processes. It is very important that readers also look to ethnic and “specialty” media to ensure the consumption of as many perspectives as possible.
Earlier in your career — before politics, before law school — you had a salsa company. I’ve always wanted to ask you: Why salsa? Is it still in production?
I actually started my salsa company because it was a way to have flexible working hours when my child was little — I couldn’t afford child care and needed to make a living, so I started making salsa. In New Mexico, a lot of restaurants jar their salsa and sell it in stores, so I decided to do that, and I called it Pueblo Salsa. That business venture ended in 2006, the same year I finished law school.
Given that you had a salsa company, I would infer you like to cook — do you have a signature dish?
Yes, I enjoy cooking and sharing a meal with people. In Pueblo culture, we celebrate our patron saint by hosting feast days where people open up their homes and share food with anyone who comes by to eat. When I was in law school, I would make chicken green chile stew for student gatherings and fundraisers, and I even made that same dish in 2019 for my congressional colleagues during the winter holiday season.
I love a good book, so I’ve started asking everyone I interview: Is there a book on your nightstand/Kindle that you’re in the middle of or one that you’re particularly excited to read?
A couple of the most impactful books I have recently read are “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” by Timothy Egan and “The Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley.