There may be members of Congress with ancestral lineage dating back to Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, but those bloodlines are almost quaint next to President Biden’s newest Cabinet member. Former New Mexico Congresswoman and now Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland has roots dating back to 1200 in the American southwest.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo nation, identifies as a 35th generation American. She becomes the first Native American to serve in a Presidential Cabinet. The Senate voted by a 51-40 margin with most Republicans voting against her. Prior to her election to Congress, Haaland served as head of New Mexico’s state Democratic Party. She served only one term in Congress representing a district that covers most of Albuquerque.
Haaland’s new job mixes symbolism and substance. As a Native American she reflects the nation’s 1.9 million Native population. Substantively, she is responsible for nearly half a billion acres of public land and federal coastal waters, the nation’s dams and reservoirs---many in the western United States---and the preservation of countless endangered species.
At her swearing in, Haaland sent a message of pride to Native Americans by eschewing the uniform of the day, the angular, dark blue or black business suit worn by female members of Congress. The New York Times described Haaland’s swearing-in clothing as “a dark jacket over a sky blue, rainbow-trimmed ribbon skirt embroidered with imagery of butterflies, stars and corn; moccasin boots; a turquoise and silver belt and necklace; and dragonfly earrings.” The message rang out like a clarion call.
Haaland’s path to the highest levels of government represents struggle, sacrifice and, ultimately, success. As a young person she attended thirteen different public schools before graduating. She went to college with the aid of student loans and food stamps ultimately earning her undergraduate and law degree in Indian Law from the University of New Mexico.
In her new role, Haaland will oversee an Interior Department focused on promoting more environmentally responsible policies while undoing many of the previous administration’s unsteady and unfocused moves. Her two immediate predecessors, David Bernhardt and Ryan Zinke, ran the agency in a pro-industry manner favoring more mining and drilling on public lands, including thousands of acres of lands considered spiritual by Native Americans, and diluting protection for endangered species. Both resigned under clouds of scandal and accusation.
Haaland’s appointment is a cascade of sunshine across Native America, a population that includes more than 500 separate nations. “Seeing her sworn in made me incredibly happy,” said Albuquerque pediatrician, Dr. Yolandra Gomez Toya. “I work in a lot of Native communities,” said Gomez Toya, who also holds a graduate degree in public health. “I see a lot of the challenges our children are going through. And a big issue is a lack of role models.” “We are an invisible minority in this country,” said the Albuquerque doctor, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Watching Haaland take her oath was a moment of pride for her and other Native Americans. Haaland, said Gomez Toya, is a symbol is both strength and hope. “There are no obstacles that you cannot get around…there’s a way to get there.”
“Calling an indigenous woman ‘Madam Secretary’ had been a long time coming,” said attorney and former Colorado State Legislator, Joe Salazar. Salazar, who identifies as part of the Apache nation and whose words are rarely unambiguous, said Haaland’s appointment to Interior is particularly important and “proof-positive evidence that indigenous people are resilient.”
Haaland joins what is the most diverse cabinet of any in U.S. history. President Biden’s cabinet is 55 percent non-white and 45 percent female. Ex-president Trump’s cabinet was 82 percent white and 82 percent male.
Joining Haaland as the newest member of the Cabinet is former Congressman and most recently California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra. He was narrowly confirmed by a 50-49 margin. Maine Senator Susan Collins was the only Republican to cross over and vote for Becerra. Because she was back home at the time of the vote, Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono did not cast a vote.
Much of the Republican opposition to Becerra’s nomination was based on his lack of experience in health care as well as his pro-choice voting record. The former California Congressman was once described as a “strident supporter of women’s health and reproductive rights.” He has also staked out strong positions on women’s health issues.
The 63-year-old Becerra was raised in Sacramento, California, in a one-room apartment along with three sisters. His mother was a Mexican immigrant, his father, was American-born but raised in Tijuana, Mexico. Becerra attended Sacramento public schools before entering Stanford University where he earned both his undergraduate and law degrees. He served one term in the California Assembly before being elected to Congress in 1993.
Becerra’s appointment to California Attorney General took a lot of people by surprise. Having gained the requisite seniority in Congress---more than twenty years---he may have been thought of as a logical successor to the state’s senior Senator Diane Feinstein. Though he was an attorney, it had been years since he’d practiced law. But three years on the job, earned him rave reviews. “I’m not sure he was the logical choice, but he did a hell of a job,” former California Governor Gray Davis said. Becerra succeeded Vice President Kamala Harris who left the office after winning election to the U.S. Senate. He finished out Harris’ term and later won reelection in a statewide vote.
The mixture of President Biden’s cabinet has sent a strong and satisfying message to racial and gender diversity advocates. “Both appointments are of great significance to both the Native American and Mexican American communities,” said Gilberto Ocañas, former member of the Democratic National Committee and head of the Ocañas Group, a Washington D.C., based lobbying firm.
Haaland’s appointment, he said, “made me think of all her ancestors,” who lost their lands…but “now have one of their own overseeing U.S. government lands.” Becerra’s appointment, said Ocañas, also reflects a new and positive direction in running the government. “He (Becerra) gets to oversee how to improve the health conditions of all Americans, especially in times of COVID.”
Becerra’s confirmation means he will be the first Latino to serve as head of HHS. His tenure will be closely scrutinized not simply because of his scant history in healthcare but because the country remains in the grip of the worst pandemic to hit in more than a century. To date, COVID-19 has---in just 55 weeks--- claimed the lives of nearly 540,000 Americans and infected nearly 30 million across the country.