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The Radical Possibility of Deb Haaland at the Department of Interior

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Nominee for Secretary of Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, speaks after President-elect Joe Biden announced his climate and energy appointments.
Nominee for Secretary of Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland, speaks after President-elect Joe Biden announced his climate and energy appointments.
Photo: Joshua Roberts (Getty Images)

“The only reparation for land is land.”

These words come from Lakota elder Madonna Thunder Hawk, a prominent figure in the American Indian Movement who has advocated for Indigenous rights for close to 50 years. Thunder Hawk’s statement encapsulates everything you need to know about the growing #LandBack movement. The demand is simple: Give the land that was stolen back to Indigenous nations.

When I state this demand in public presentations, I often get a question from the audience asking me to specify the land I’m referring to. I usually answer by saying, “the entire U.S. Which means all of it.”

Many see Laguna Pueblo Rep. Deb Haaland’s nomination to be the next secretary of the Department of the Interior as a paradigm shift where Indigenous demands for mass land return are no longer aspirational, but possible. Organizations like NDN Collective have their sights for #LandBack set on the more than 500 million acres of public lands that fall under DOI’s oversight.


More than 100 tribal leaders penned a letter to the Biden-Harris administration in December advocating for Haaland’s appointment, citing the reinstatement of Bears Ears National Monument—a move that both Biden and Haaland support—as a central issue. After taking office in January 2017, Trump swiftly slashed the acreage of the monument established under Obama, reducing it to less than 15% of its prior size to make way for oil and gas production. Haaland potentially protecting Bears Ears would be a huge victory for Indigenous nations and grassroots movements, but it could be just the start.


The Department of the Interior oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. Over the past two decades, these different branches of the department—public land management and tribal affairs—have become increasingly intertwined through DOI’s support for resource extraction. Whether the construction of oil pipelines through Oceti Sakowin treaty lands under President Obama or the leasing of lands adjacent to sacred sites like Chaco Canyon and Bears Ears for hydraulic fracturing under President Trump, Interior’s support for resource extraction on public lands has created a situation where the destiny of Native nations is increasingly tied to the fate of U.S. public lands. As a result, frustrations with the DOI have been brewing—and growing—in Indian Country, at times erupting into large stand offs with the government like the #NoDAPL uprising at Standing Rock in 2016, which Haaland participated in.

Many in Indian Country have come to view the DOI’s pro-extractive stance as a policy that continues the centuries-long genocidal campaign of colonization through the sacrificing of Native lands, culture, and sovereignty for the greater public (read: white settler) good. The phrase “sacrifice zone” has become commonplace in Indigenous grassroots movements to describe the DOI’s policy towards Native communities. Many of these movements are influential in New Mexico energy politics. Given that Haaland is a self-proclaimed 35th generation New Mexican, she is undoubtedly familiar with their demands.


In New Mexico, Pueblo and Diné youth—primarily young women—have led heroic campaigns over the last five years to protect their communities and lands from the destruction of oil and gas development. On Dec. 5, 2018, hundreds gathered with these young leaders to protest what was, at that time, the largest auction in New Mexico history to lease public land for oil and gas development.

Standing outside the state headquarters of the BLM in Santa Fe, New Mexico, these young grassroots leaders held a press conference and delivered an historic anti-fracking petition to BLM officials, brandishing a banner that proclaimed “public land is stolen land.” It drove home that so-called “public lands” are, in fact, born of Indigenous dispossession and that the leasing of these lands for fracking is, by extension, a colonial enterprise. While Haaland has never connected fracking to ongoing colonialism, her appointment as Interior secretary may spell the end to new leases for fracking on public land that Biden has set forth in his climate plan, thereby taking a crucial step towards meeting the demands of grassroots Indigenous movements.


As Haaland settles into her new position, one thing is for sure: Native people are on the rise. They are taking climate change seriously and building power, refusing to have their rightful land be the country’s sacrifice zone any longer. As Haaland herself has stated, “I think it’s a time in our world―not just in our country, but our entire world―to listen to Indigenous people when it comes to climate change, when it comes to our environment.”

While she will likely meet some #LandBack demands by protecting Indigenous sacred sites and decreasing oil and gas production on public land in a larger move to curb climate change, she has been silent about the movement’s calls for actual land return as a form of concrete decolonization, which continues to be its foundation. Her legacy regarding the broader #LandBack movement will depend on her willingness to engage the latter.


Melanie K. Yazzie is assistant professor of Native American studies and American studies at the University of New Mexico. She organizes with The Red Nation, a grassroots Native-run organization committed to Indigenous liberation.