FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – To Native Americans, Deb Haaland is more than an elected official on the way to becoming the Home Office’s first Indigenous secretary. She is a fierce sister, aunt and pueblo woman whose political positions have been shaped by her upbringing.
The news of his historic appointment electrified the Indian country. For weeks, tribal leaders and organizations have urged people to write and call U.S. senators who will decide whether she heads the agency that exercises broad oversight over Native American affairs and energy development.
Haaland’s confirmation hearing this week is closely watched in tribal communities, with some virtual parties drawing hundreds of people. The hearing began on Tuesday and will continue on Wednesday.
To mark the event, supporters projected a photo of the congressman from New Mexico on the side of the interior building with text that read “Our ancestors’ dreams come true.” A Haaland mobile billboard also toured Washington, DC
Many Native Americans see Haaland as a reflection of themselves, someone who will raise their voice and protect the environment and tribal rights. Here are stories of its impact:
ALETA ‘TWEETY’ SUAZO, 66, LAGUNA AND ACOMA PUEBLOS IN NEW MEXICO
Suazo first met Haaland while campaigning for Barack Obama, going door-to-door in the pueblos of New Mexico.
When Haaland was chosen to represent New Mexico as one of the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress, she turned to Suazo and the state’s Native American Democratic Caucus to whip up goodies for a reception.
They baked hundreds of pueblo pies, or pastelitos, and cookies, froze them, and took them to Washington. Dressed in traditional black dresses, they handed out the gifts with a thank you note from Haaland.
Suazo said she admired Haaland because she is articulate and intelligent, “doesn’t beat around the bush”, and is a member of Laguna Pueblo who returned there to dance as a form of prayer.
When she learned that Haaland had been appointed Home Secretary shortly after winning a second term in Congress, Suazo was not thrilled.
“Oh my God, she’s gonna go, and who’s gonna represent us?” said Suazo, who lives in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. “This is our one and only Indian representative. “
She wanted to be assured that Haaland would be replaced by someone so dynamic, who would work hard to protect the environment, tackle an epidemic of missing and killed indigenous women and expand broadband, she said.
“I was happy, but I was scared. I didn’t want to lose her, ”Suazo said.
But she sees the importance, she says, of having a Native American to oversee an agency that touches almost every aspect of Native American life.
Suazo texted Haaland ahead of the hearing to tell him “be a strong woman” or “gumeh”. She went back and forth watching him on TV and in a virtual party.
“It kind of reminds me of people who have prayer groups, that kind of collective sending (of) good thoughts, good prayers and support, and having so many people doing it at the same time was so awesome. “Suazo said.
BRANDI LIBERTY, 42, IOWA TRIBE OF KANSAS AND NEBRASKA
When Liberty saw a photo of Haaland in a traditional ribbon skirt and moccasins for Joe Biden’s nomination, she cried.
She thought of her grandmother Ethil Simmonds Liberty, who didn’t become a U.S. citizen until she was 9, despite being born on her tribe’s reservation that straddles Kansas and Nebraska. Her grandmother was a staunch advocate for her people, petitioning to turn a pigsty into a playground, writing letters to U.S. presidents and leading efforts to have the road paved to the reservation, she said.
Brandi Liberty has thought of her own daughter, whom she hopes will carry on her legacy by working with the tribes and embracing their heritage.
She thought about the time she had spent earning a masters degree and seeing single mothers bring their children to class, each realizing that it was not a burden but a necessity. She later became a single mother like Haaland, who often talks about her experiences working in college and accumulating debt.
Liberty also reflected on how Haaland could move other tribes in the right direction and connect them to Washington. Essentially Liberty’s grandmother on a larger scale.
“It’s no different from when Obama became the first black president and what that meant,” said Liberty, who lives in New Orleans. “It is a historic mark for the Indian country as a whole.”
Liberty captured most of Tuesday’s audience while keeping her parents and others in the know through text messages and social media posts. She found herself in tears again when Haaland made her opening statement and spoke of her personal struggles.
“I could relate to so many things,” Liberty said.
ZACHARIAH RIDES AT THE DOOR, 21, MONTANA BLACK FEET TRIBE
Rides At The Door is studying environmental science and sustainability, and fire science as a third year student at the University of Montana at Missoula.
He brings to his studies a perspective that Haaland presented as being unique in the Indian country – that everything is alive and should be treated with respect and that people should be stewards of the land, rather than having dominion over it.
In high school, he learned about the mining industry and its impact on the sites that are part of the Blackfeet’s founding story. He learned about the role of the American Indian Movement in the struggle for equality and the recognition of tribal sovereignty. He also recently learned that the United States had a Native American Vice President from 1929 to 1933, Charles Curtis.
Rides At The Door isn’t sure what he wants to do after graduation. But he knows he wants to learn the blackfoot language and maybe become a firefighter or work on projects that get bison to his reserve.
He was working Tuesday but planned to catch up on the audience via social networks. Already he was seeing memes and other posts praising Haaland.
Seeing his political rise is inspiring, he said.
“It’s a great way for Aboriginal youth to say, ‘Alright, our foot is in the door. There is a chance that we can get higher positions.
DEBBIE NEZ-MANUEL, 49, NAVAJO NATION IN ARIZONA, NEW MEXICO AND UTAH
During his recent campaign for a legislative seat in Arizona, Nez-Manuel sought Haaland’s approval. She was looking for someone whose values matched hers: belief-based, connected to the earth, a cohesive leader and strong unaffected by politics.
After several steps of verification, she got approval and planned to announce it at a rally to get the vote featuring Haaland in the Gila River Indian community in Arizona. It was also an opportunity for the two women to take a photo together.
Then the event was canceled due to the pandemic. Nez-Manuel was devastated.
A few days before she was supposed to meet Haaland, Nez-Manuel was sitting at home when her phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number.
“Hey Debbie, it’s Deb,” the voice said over the phone.
“Who?” asked Nez-Manuel.
The caller replied, “Deb Haaland. Hello. I’m calling from New Mexico. I am sitting in my kitchen.
Nez-Manuel’s heart raced and she found it hard to express all the thoughts she had so carefully written for this meeting. Haaland, she said, was patient and shared stories about life on and off a reserve – something that resonated with Nez-Manuel.
“It’s like talking to an aunt,” she says. “She’s very factual.”
Nez-Manuel joked about flying to Washington for Haaland’s confirmation hearing in order to get that elusive image.
Instead, she and her husband, Royce, logged into a virtual watch from their home in the Salt River-Pima Maricopa community in northeast Phoenix. Nez-Manuel said Haaland has shown a willingness to learn from others, accurately answering questions and committing to making science-based decisions.
“It’s about protecting what’s there, what’s good for humanity, not for wallets,” said Nez-Manuel. “It was something that clearly stood out.”
This story has been corrected to show that Brandi Liberty is 42 years old.
Fonseca is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP