President Biden nominated Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) for secretary of the interior on Dec. 17, 2020, and if confirmed, Haaland will become the first Native American cabinet-level official. The United States Senate held confirmation hearings for Haaland on Feb. 23-24, and the final Senate vote is pending for her confirmation.
As head of the Department of the Interior, Haaland would oversee the federal government’s relations with tribal nations and manage public lands in the country.
Haaland is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna. She is one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress and currently serves as the representative for New Mexico’s first district.
Jay Pearson, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, comments on her nomination.
“The Biden administration’s belief that leadership at the federal government level should reflect the broad range of perspectives characterizing the nation and richness associated with that range of perspectives is a really important commitment,” says Jay Pearson, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy. “It shouldn’t be that one narrowly defined demographic gets to make all the social, economic and political decisions that we all have to live under.”
“During Haaland’s confirmation hearing, she brought to bear a professionalism and a dignity emblematic of someone who has a history of grace during attempts at targeting and diminishing her minority identity,” Pearson says. “Particularly at the intersection of race and gender, as constructed and imposed by a majority population, and particularly white men in that political body during a time when most of the public did not know who she was.”
“Native American identity in the United States is a fascinating construct because these were sovereign nations that the U.S. government attempted to negotiate independent contracts with, but then went about the business of systematically racializing them into a single minority racial group,” Pearson says. “Ignoring this history is not fair to her as an individual or even the Laguna Pueblo people whom she represents.”
“Haaland being able to set the narrative about who she is, who Laguna Pueblo people and Native populations are – versus what the dominant majority would like to paint them out to be – we really need to understand and appreciate here,” Pearson says.
“A person’s connection to land – particularly a Native woman’s connection to ancestral lands and her lived experience – has value,” Pearson says. “The value of the heritage, history and culture of Native populations I don’t believe can be overstated.”
Jay Pearson is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and an assistant research professor of public policy and global health at the Duke Global Health Institute. Pearson’s research examines how various forms of structural inequality influence social determination of health. He also teaches an ethics course on race, white supremacy and privilege.
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