A Conversation with New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland

By Rebecca Goldfine
To launch Bowdoin's celebration of Native American Heritage Month, the Native American Student Association and Bowdoin Outing Club recently hosted Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico via Zoom.

Haaland is a thirty-fifth-generation New Mexican and an enrolled citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. She is one of the first two Native American women to serve in the US House of Representatives, and one of three New Mexican congresspeople.

Shortly after her talk with Bowdoin students, Haaland made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. President Joe Biden nominated her in December to oversee the US Department of the Interior, which is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources. She was confirmed March 15, 2021.

In Congress, she has served on the Committee on Armed Services and is vice chair of the Committee on Natural Resources. She is also a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council and, according to The New York Times, is being considered for a role in Biden's cabinet.

"For more than 200 years, decisions about federal policy have been made without Native Americans sitting at the table to advocate for our own interests," she said in her Monday evening remarks. "Although I am honored to take a seat as one of the first indigenous women in Congress, the process of healing the intergenerational damage caused by corrosive government actions against Native Americans through the various eras of US government policy is a collective effort."

She praised the Native American Student Association (NASA) for its work at Bowdoin. This student group and other similar organizations that work "within institutions to create structures of support for our indigenous people play an important role in establishing a more equitable society for all of us," she said.

She also spoke about the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on Native communities and her efforts to improve people's access to health care. She talked about passing bills that strengthen the response of law enforcement to the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women, and she mentioned that she's committed to addressing climate change and protecting the environment.

Following her talk, she answered questions from the audience. In response to a question about women's role in Native governance, she reflected on her own ascent to power. "I started out as a phone volunteer, and now I am member of Congress. I don't have rich parents. I didn't have a savings account when I decided to run," she said. "No matter what it takes, we owe it to our people and our fellow human beings to be the best we can be and to work as hard as we can to move our communities forward."

NASA co-leader Sunshine Eaton, who is from the Tesuque Reservation in New Mexico, arranged Haaland's virtual visit. "US Representative Haaland is an amazing leader, and we found it so empowering to hear from a Native woman who holds a high leadership position in the United States," she said after the event. "We knew this online format would be a great opportunity to invite her to speak with us, so we took that opportunity."