I never heard the name Debra Haaland until President Biden appointed this Native American woman to his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior last December. Our paths will likely never cross, though I would love to meet her and learn more about her tribal affiliation with the Laguna Pueblos.
Her appointment is a sign of hope for our multi-cultural continent. Finally, after four centuries, a Native American woman sits at the table where national policies and problems are discussed. Indigenous people have traditionally shown great respect for Mother Earth and I’ve seen the need for greater respect for Mom Nature.
Experience Shapes Perceptions
A mixed variety of work and life experiences have influenced my attitudes toward both the natural world and those who managed it long before Europeans showed up. Among these experiences:
- This quote: “The Peacemaker taught us about the Seven Generations. He said, when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. He said, make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.” Oren Lyons (Seneca) – Faithkeeper, Onondaga Nation
- My work in outdoor ministry in Ohio and Texas where I learned the philosophy that we don’t inherit land from our ancestors as much as we borrow it from our children and grandchildren.
- The Cuyahoga River. In the late 1960s this river, which flows through Cleveland into Lake Erie, caught fire. It wasn’t a miracle, but rather the result of years of unregulated industries dumping flammable waste into it until the oil slick burst into flames. That environmental disaster hit my home town.
- My brief career with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. There I learned that before settlers started moving into Ohio, the forests were so thick a squirrel could travel from the Ohio River to the shores of Lake Erie without ever touching the ground. Settlers soon clear cut enormous swaths of land to plant crops. We need places to grow food, but we also need trees.
- Another short career stop with the outdoor drama, Trumpet in the Land. Set in the Revolutionary War period, the play tells the story of Moravian missionary David Zeisberger and peaceful Delaware Indians who founded the Ohio settlement Schoenbrunn in 1772. In 1782 a Pennsylvanian militia attacked the nearby Gnadenhutten Moravian mission, believing Indians there had kidnapped and killed several white people. They had not. By then the Indians had relocated further west, but returned to harvest any remaining crops. The massive migration of Indigenous people from the east to the west began with the 1830 Indian removal act and culminated in the manifest destiny movement a few years later.
- The GEM of Egypt (Giant Earth Mover in Egypt Valley, Ohio). It was used to strip mine in eastern Ohio, removing chunks of earth bigger than buses with each swipe of its enormous jaw. While we lived there we took people to witness the barren mess of gooey infertile earth left behind. The acid run-off flowing down the hills in rivets looked very much like red tear tracks.
New Secretary of the Interior, New Hope for the Future
All this makes me excited about what Debra Haaland brings to the table. Born in Winslow, Arizona in 1960, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Mexico and later her J.D. from the University’s School of Law. In a press release, Biden’s office stated, “Haaland is a barrier-breaking public servant who has spent her career fighting for families, including in Tribal Nations, rural communities, and communities of color.”
Prior to her Cabinet appointment, she served as Vice Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. In the past the Interior Department has been used to oppress America’s Indigenous peoples. This department manages our public lands, endangered species and natural resources, and oversees government-to-government relations between the U.S.A. and Native American tribes.
Many Are Hopeful, Others Not
“Indian country has shouted from the valleys, from the mountaintops, that it’s time. It’s overdue,” Sandia Pueblo tribal member Stephine Poston told NPR after Haaland was nominated. Tribal groups, environmental organizations and lawmakers all celebrated her nomination to lead the Interior Department. However, she also faces opposition from some lawmakers and industry groups that consider her stance on various environmental issues too extreme.
In response she said during her confirmation hearing “There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” adding that climate change must be addressed as the “challenge of our lifetime. The department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs and new economic opportunities. The president’s agenda demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production.”
Endless expansion and unregulated consumption of natural resources is not sustainable. When the concept of “Manifest Destiny” was coined by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan in 1845 the population of the country was roughly 24 million. Today it is about 328 million. All who dwell here need clean water, clean air, and healthy land to sustain life and provide food and fuel.
Thanks for taking time to read about this article. Share this with a friend so they can help spread the word too. Sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I have a variety of ‘thank you’ resources waiting for you there.
Read more about the early encounters between the Pilgrim settlers and the Pokanokets in my historical novel Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures. Available now in paperback Ebook and audio.
Bookshop.org (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Autographed copies available from BlueWillowBookShop.com/book/