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The Promise and Pressures of Deb Haaland, the First Native American Cabinet Secretary


Ms. Haaland, 60, was born in Winslow, Ariz., to Mary Toya, a Laguna woman, and John David Haaland, a Minnesotan of Norwegian descent. Both parents served in the Navy, and Mr. Haaland, a Marine, earned a Silver Star for heroism in Vietnam. Ms. Haaland lived a peripatetic early life, changing schools frequently before the family settled in Albuquerque. Her ancestral home is in the Laguna Pueblo village of Mesita, population 800, and for 25 years, her mother worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Ms. Haaland raised her child Somáh alone, often struggling to make ends meet. Ms. Haaland enrolled in the University of New Mexico at the age of 28, eventually earning a law degree. Ms. Haaland has said that she and her child both still have student loans.

Ms. Haaland plunged into politics while running a small salsa-making business. She was also chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation, a business owned by the Pueblo of Laguna whose many ventures benefit the tribal economy, and include “World Famous Laguna Burger” restaurants and the sprawling Route 66 casino and hotel complex in Albuquerque.

In 2018, four years after a failed bid for lieutenant governor of New Mexico, Ms. Haaland ran for a House seat and won. Expectations had abounded then, too. A campaign intern, DeChellie Gray, a Navajo, recalled when Ms. Haaland returned from a long walk in Albuquerque and said that a homeless man had approached her at a bus stop. “I’ve heard your story about being sober,” he told Ms. Haaland, who has been sober for three decades. “I want you to be in Congress because you understand my life struggles.”

Ms. Haaland and Representative Sharice Davids, Democrat of Kansas, took office in 2019 as the first two Native women in Congress. Ms. Haaland wore a traditional ribbon skirt, turquoise jewelry and moccasin boots for her swearing-in, but for all her significance, she was a low-key House member, not part of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad” and no one’s idea of a firebrand.

And yet she soon became a favorite of the left, championed by Hollywood actors like Mark Ruffalo, who called her nomination “a significant step towards healing some of the deepest wounds of the past.” Ms. Haaland was not angling for the Interior Department job when Julian Brave NoiseCat, a young writer and political strategist, began “a little guerrilla campaign” for her nomination that grew into a groundswell, with progressive activists and celebrities joining American Indians in support.





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