A Pueblo Woman on the Cabinet: Tewa Perspectives
Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo and 35th generation New Mexican, is set to become the first Native American member of the Cabinet, as President-elect Biden’s nominee to head the Department of the Interior.
Haaland’s nomination to this position is extraordinary for many reasons, and particularly significant to Native communities. As Secretary of the Interior, she would be in charge of the government department that oversees 500 million acres of public lands, as well as manages national parks, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Dr. Corrine Sanchez, executive director of Tewa Women United, said, “This is a powerful moment for Indian Country, and in particular for us as Indigenous women and girls from the Pueblo communities in New Mexico, to have a woman in this position for the first time ever — someone who looks like us, shares our values, our perspective our voice, and our connection to the land, understanding the importance of what the Earth means to us as far as our cultural and spiritual existence as Native people.”
What difference will it make to have a Native woman in this position? Corrine observed, “When you talk about racism, and oppression, the Interior [has housed] governmental structures that have impeded our very existence as Indigenous communities. It’s critical that Haaland comes to it with an Indigenous lens, but also the lens of an Indigenous woman. We’re not just seeing these as resources, but as vital to the existence of all of our life, no matter who we are, what race we come from, and no matter the country.”
Beata Tsosie-Peña, coordinator of TWU’s Environmental Health and Justice Program, said, “This government has a lot to answer to, and a lot of reparations to make. I see every day how we still do not have the capacity within our own communities to deal with ongoing harm…It comes out in ways that our people are targeted for violence, where our way of life is still having to live with this constant taking and disrespect of our lands and culture. There is a lack of equity for our way of knowing. Ironically, if that was supported, nurtured and achieved, where Indigenous families were centered as the standard for protection in this nation, where Indigenous families are healthy and whole, I guarantee you that the rest of this country would also benefit in our health and wellness.”
Corrine remarked on the system that Haaland is having to navigate, and the support she will need: “The U.S. system is a patriarchy, but we’ve seen unprecedented waves of women of color in these positions. We’re happy to see that tide change. Lobbying and corporations have a big voice when they want to push their agenda. We know from different types of environmental pushback that communities have done that people’s lives have been threatened. I’m sure [Haaland] has received threats, just for being a woman. Violence against women is real, and we see that and violence against Mother Earth as intertwined.”
Beata reinforced this point: “Historically, every presidential administration has enacted colonial oppressive systems on Native peoples. Having an Indigenous woman within that system is not enough to change the foundation of that system, and that historical violence. She needs all of our prayers and support, because she’s doing it within a system founded on racism and sexism… She is going to be in a position where her Indigenous way of knowing, her land-based way of knowing, and her spiritual grounding are not recognized in equity with colonial domination. I think she’s going to be met with a lot of resistance, and I sure hope she feels the prayers and support of Indigenous people, and for all the hard work and compromises she’s going to have to make.”
Beata offered this reflection as well: “I hope that people really internalize their own strength and power as Native peoples, and that we rise up along with her! And whatever capacity we hold and carry within our own Indigenous communities, our own Native communities, that we don’t see her as a savior but as someone who needs that collective energy and prayers, and culture that is so much older than the harm that has been happening for the last four to five hundred years. That we tap into that ancestral strength and power, in this moment, to see all of ourselves as leaders, and all of ourselves as agents of revolutionary transformative change in our communities, and returning and remembering those instructions of love, care, respect and help for our peoples on this earth, in facilitating life on this planet.”
With thanks to Reid Singer for materials from his interviews with Corrine and Beata