On Monday, the United States Senate is holding a final confirmation vote for Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) as the new secretary of the interior. If confirmed, Haaland will become the first Native American cabinet-level official.
As head of the Department of the Interior, Haaland would oversee the federal government’s relations with tribal nations and manage public lands in the country.
Haaland is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna. She is one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress and serves as the representative for New Mexico’s first district.
Jay Pearson, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, comments on the historic nomination.
“The Biden administration’s recognition and belief that leadership at the federal government level should reflect the broad range of perspectives characterizing the nation and richness associated with that range of perspectives is a really important resource,” says Jay Pearson, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy. “One narrowly defined demographic – well-to-do white men – should not have exclusive or disproportionate authority to make all of the decisions, be they social, economic, political or judicial, that we all have to live under.”
“During Haaland’s confirmation hearing, she brought to bear a professionalism and a dignity emblematic of someone who has a history of practicing grace while contending with targeted attempts at diminishing her minority identity,” Pearson says. “These diminishing attempts have been constructed by white male politicians and focused particular attention on women of color. This, during a time when most of the broader public did not know who she was.”
“Native American identity in the United States is a fascinating construct because these were sovereign nations that the U.S. government proposed to negotiate independent contracts with, but then went about the business of systematically racializing them into a single minority racial group,” Pearson says. “Ignoring this history is not fair to her as an individual, the Laguna Pueblo people whom she represents and broader Native American populations.”
“Haaland being able to set the narrative about who she is, who the Laguna Pueblo people and Native American populations writ large are – versus what the dominant majority would like to paint them out to be – is an important distinction. We really need to understand and appreciate that dynamic here,” Pearson says.
“A Native American person’s connection to land – particularly a Native American woman’s connection to ancestral lands and her lived experience as a function of this connection – has value,” Pearson says. “The importance of the heritage, history and culture of Native populations to the land of what we now know as the United States of America I don’t believe can be overstated and should be respected.”
Jay Pearson is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and an assistant research professor of public policy and global health at the Duke Global Health Institute. Pearson's research examines how various forms of structural inequality influence social determination of health, and he teaches an ethics course on race, white supremacy and privilege.
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