Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is used to discussing the role she plays as “the first.” As the very first Native American to hold the position as Cabinet secretary within the United States government, she inherently understands “the blessing and the burden,” as she told PBS NewsHour’s Lisa Desjardins for The 19th Represents Summit. 

“I stand on the shoulders of so many Native Americans who came before me,” Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, told The 19th. “I feel confident in that respect — they have made a path for me. I have to just reach out and ask for strength when I can.”

Right now, that strength of conviction is especially critical in light of the conversation currently gripping the United States about what parts of American history should and should not be taught in schools. As Desjardins said to Haaland, there are currently many White Americans who believe that teaching America’s racist past is somehow an effort to shame America — a belief that most recently has spurred lawmakers, educators and people in power within various government agencies to ban what’s known as critical race theory. 

“I think what our country has taught us over the last year or so is that our history is everyone’s history,” Haaland said. “History doesn’t change. However, we can choose not to learn about it.”

Looking the other way, Haaland notes, has been the status quo for much of America’s past. The Department of Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative was launched by Haaland in June specifically to hold a candle to a long-ignored aspect of American history by documenting the burial sites within these schools where Native and Indigenous Americans were forcibly sent as children, often to die. It’s a step, Haaland said, toward addressing the intergenerational trauma faced by Native communities to this day as a result of seeing their children taken from their communities, often never to return home.

“Those families deserve that information,” Haaland said.

It’s this same mindset that guides Haaland’s belief that all parts of American history, even the uncomfortable ones, must be part of the conversation in schools.

“If we take the time to learn about the history, as devastating and sad and traumatizing as it is, we can shine a light on our past and embrace a future we can all be proud of,” Haaland said.

Even though this history of how Native Americans were treated in this country is difficult, Haaland says it’s far from unique — as the conversations that have taken place over the past year about America’s history with Black people have made so apparent. It’s also what has made it all the more urgent to ensure that all histories are taught, widely and openly. 

“It’s important we all embrace our history so we can change our future,” Haaland said, noting that doing so has “nothing [to do with] shaming,” but rather “coming into the knowledge we all need.”

Accounting for, and teaching, the full history of America is the path towards a more unified country, and not a more divided one, Haaland said.

“Look, we have heard over and over again about history repeating itself. We don’t want history repeating itself in so many respects,” she said. “What better way than learning about the history so we can make changes for the future?”