Deb Haaland illustration
Deb Haaland illustration
(Illustration: Jason Holley)

Deb Haaland’s Long Game for Victory


It’s not easy being a progressive who works for a middle-of-the-road president. Mark Sundeen sizes up the interior secretary’s first year in office—which has been a disappointment to climate-change activists—and decides she’s most likely to make a mark through a historic reckoning over the U.S. government’s shameful running of Native American boarding schools.


Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

In February 2021, when President-elect Joe Biden nominated Deb Haaland to become the 54th secretary of the interior, the left and right staked out familiar turf. A one-term Democratic congresswoman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Haaland had become a darling to environmentalists. She supported the Green New Deal, called for a fracking ban on public lands, and tweeted out progressive red meat like “Republicans don’t believe in science.”

GOP legislators all but fainted on the rotunda floor but were revived with smelling salts long enough to foresee the end of the oil industry and what one of them called “our way of life.” Fifteen House members urged Biden to withdraw the nomination, labeling it “a direct threat to working men and women.” Senator Steve Daines of Montana, a member of the committee that would examine Haaland’s qualifications for the job, denounced her as “radical” twice in the same press release. “Unless my concerns are addressed,” he warned, “I will block her nomination.”

Why all the drama? As someone who has lived in and written about the American West for 30 years, I can tell you that the secretary of the interior, whose main role is overseeing the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), isn’t usually a memorable figure. The vast majority of Americans who aren’t mine owners or professional environmentalists would be hard-pressed to recall a single one of them by name. Dirk Kempthorne? Ryan Zinke? Sally Jewell? None were household figures like former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell.

If the conservative goal was to marginalize Haaland as an extremist, it backfired. Instead she blossomed into a sort of folk hero, complete with hashtags, puff pieces in food magazines, and cover shoots for fashion glossies alongside J.Lo and Rihanna—more like a Top Chef all-star than one of the parade of faceless bureaucrats who inhabit the federal Cabinet. (Sorry, Tom Vilsack.) This is partly because Haaland, a Native American who’s an enrolled member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, had already qualified as a bona fide historic figure. In 2017, along with Sharice Davids of Kansas, she was one of the first Native women elected to Congress. Under Biden, she became the first Native American—man or woman—nominated to a Cabinet position.

The significance of the Cabinet nomination was immediately apparent. When it was announced, Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth and a two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate, applauded the move and said, “It’s time Native people are in a position to take care of Mother Earth. We know how to do it.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat, an activist and author who led a campaign to put Haaland on Biden’s radar, was thrilled when she was picked. “She embodies this grassroots movement of Indigenous leaders on environmental issues,” he told me. “She was at Standing Rock cooking green chile and tortillas for water protectors.”

Now entering her second year as interior secretary, Haaland has frequently disappointed the left, which wanted a climate-justice crusader that so far it hasn’t gotten, and confounded the right, which fantasized about a bottle-throwing Antifa block captain it could keep bashing politically. But her environmental decisions to date have taken a path right down the unexciting middle, which in retrospect isn’t too surprising: she works for a moderate president.

While conservatives may have railed that this likable woman of color was a shill for eco-saboteurs, I’m here to argue something else: that the real threat to the status quo is having a powerful Native American demanding justice for Native Americans. Somewhat overlooked in the spat between the Keep Oil in the Ground crowd and the Drill, Baby, Drillers—groups that both tend to be white—was the fact that Haaland would also oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), one of the most damaging and frankly racist offices in the history of American government. On Native issues, Haaland has moved swiftly to reckon with centuries of genocide and stolen land. In this arena, she could prove to be a more transformational figure—a blunt corrective for a nation that still does not know its own history—than anything conservatives feared or progressives imagined.

Deb Haaland, photographed in Chicago in 2019
Deb Haaland, photographed in Chicago in 2019 (Joseph Kayne)

Debra Haaland was born in Winslow, Arizona, in 1960, at a time when her father, J. D. Haaland—a Norwegian American Marine from Minnesota who served in Vietnam and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery—was stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

A military kid with a Native American mother, Mary Toya, along with two sisters and a brother, Haaland didn’t actually grow up in Laguna Pueblo, which sits about 45 miles west of Albuquerque. That’s not unusual: Only 22 percent of Native people live on reservations. Sixty percent are in cities, largely as a result of the 1952 Voluntary Relocation Program, which encouraged Native people to move to major population centers in yet another attempt to assimilate them. Today, Los Angeles County is home to more than 160,000 Native people, giving it the second-largest Native population after the vast Navajo Nation, which spans portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Haaland, whose family moved frequently, spent summers in Laguna with her grandparents. She has written about her immersion in traditional life there—about seeing her grandfather come home with deer he harvested in the field and showing respect to the life he’d taken. “He never left the deer alone until their spirits were sent away,” she recalled. “I would find him sleeping in the garage with them the next morning.” She remembered climbing mesas and “taking baths in a galvanized tub after six of my cousins,” and she wrote a poem about watching pueblo ceremonial dances: “I hear jingle of bells / deer hoof fragments, knocking vacant turtle shells / green gourd rattles, and the Hunters’ calls.”

As interior secretary, Deb Haaland’s environmental decisions to date have taken a path right down the unexciting middle, which in retrospect isn’t too surprising: she works for a moderate president.

By 1974, having attended 12 different public schools, Haaland moved with her family to Albuquerque, where she attended Highland High, which is located near a gritty part of town known as the War Zone, because of widespread drug dealing, street prostitution, and violence. In 1988, at 28, she enrolled at the nearby University of New Mexico (UNM) to study English. Joy Harjo, who would later become poet laureate of the United States, recalls Haaland stopping by her office one day with a motorcycle helmet, seeking permission to take an advanced poetry class. “She didn’t look like a motorcycle mama,” Harjo told me. “She rode it to save fossil fuels. It’s the real deal with her.”

Harjo let Haaland take the class, and the two women became friends. Harjo was immediately impressed by Haaland’s humility and discipline. “She was always working,” Harjo says. “She didn’t have much financial support. She was very frugal. She never bought new clothes.”

Haaland went on to achieve some success as a poet; her work was anthologized in Harjo’s 1997 collection Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America. “But her aspirations were never to become a writer,” Harjo says. “She was always about getting involved in community service, to help out her people.”

She graduated six years later, in 1994, and gave birth to a daughter, Somáh. She then started a small salsa-making company, struggling to maintain a home and keep food on the table. She shared a bedroom with Somáh, applied for food stamps, and even crashed at a friend’s house when she couldn’t afford an apartment. Haaland, who I interviewed via email, told me: “I’ve lived most of my adult life paycheck to paycheck.”

Haaland later enrolled in law school at UNM, finishing her degree in 2006. She never practiced; instead she entered the world of politics as a volunteer on the 2008 Obama campaign. She took a series of jobs organizing Native Americans to vote and worked as a tribal administrator for San Felipe Pueblo, at one point serving as the general manager of its casino. In 2014, she ran for lieutenant governor of New Mexico and lost. She then chaired the state Democratic Party for two years before being elected, in 2018, to represent the Albuquerque area in Congress.

Despite Haaland’s rapid advance in politics, she hasn’t cashed in. She has never owned her own home, and Forbes recently estimated her net worth at zero. During her Senate-confirmation hearings, she referred to her partner, Skip, as “my partner, Skip.” (A few months later they married.)

Small details perhaps, but they round out a portrait of someone forging her way through modern life in a manner more familiar to ordinary people than the prosperous Republicans who lined up to denounce her as radical.

Haaland and President Joe Biden during a White House signing ceremony in 2021
Haaland and President Joe Biden during a White House signing ceremony in 2021 (Tom Brenner/The New York Times/Redux)

During those 2020 hearings, 14 of the 19 senators Haaland faced were white men dressed in dark suits, light shirts, and neckties. She took her seat wearing a charcoal blazer, long silver earrings, and heavy strands of turquoise. The blazer was more Beltway normal than her congressional swearing-in attire from two years earlier, which The New York Times described as “a sky blue, rainbow-trimmed ribbon skirt embroidered with imagery of butterflies, stars and corn; moccasin boots; a turquoise and silver belt and necklace; and dragonfly earrings.”

In Haaland’s opening remarks, she addressed the panel in the Keres language, spoken by seven Pueblo peoples in New Mexico, then switched to English to thank her family, her voice seeming to crack as she mentioned “generations of ancestors who have sacrificed so much so I could be here today.” (Laguna Pueblo dates back centuries; Haaland has described herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican.) She added, referring to the D.C. environs: “I acknowledge that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank, Anacostan, and Piscataway people.”

While such statements have become common on college campuses and progressive rallies, they’re still rare on Capitol Hill. In just 30 seconds, Haaland may have taught America more about Native people than its public schools usually do, including the fact that they were not only here long before whites, but that they’re still here and have retained their cultures and languages despite being driven to the brink of extermination.

Haaland went light on policy that day and heavy on personal story, but most of the Republicans did not seem to be swayed. Wyoming senator John Barrasso dropped the word “radical” in his opening statement and, in response to Haaland’s Republicans-don’t-believe-in-science tweet, trotted out his medical degree, along with those of senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Roger Marshall of Kansas.

“Do you think that as medical doctors we don’t believe in science?” he said. “How do you stand by this statement?”

As Haaland knew, all three were on the record as climate-change doubters, but she didn’t take the bait, replying with only the slightest hint of irony: “If you’re a doctor, I would assume you believe in science.”

Minnesota Democrat Tina Smith cried foul over Haaland’s treatment. “Time after time, strong women, and especially women of color, are attacked,” she said, adding that “white men with the same views are welcome to walk right through that door unopposed.” (It’s worth noting that the two Republican women on the panel, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith, asked tough questions without any of the bluster of their male counterparts.)

If the Republicans wanted an Earth First! bogeyman that day, instead they got an exceedingly polite, occasionally backpedaling, sometimes stammering technocrat in horn-rimmed glasses who uttered platitudes like “I appreciate the question, senator” and “The earth is here to provide for us.” Haaland brushed off whitesplaining by Barrasso and North Dakota’s John Hoeven, who scolded her with the news that some tribes are in favor of coal and oil development on their lands, as if this made her a fraud. Noting Haaland’s presence at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation during the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Hoeven asked if she would recuse herself from any decisions about the project. Haaland again took the bureaucratic road, replying that she would heed the advice of Interior lawyers.

A rare instance of Haaland departing from the script provided the hearing’s most memorable moment. Senator Daines, before decrying her “very far-left, divisive positions,” challenged her to give an estimate of how many grizzly bears inhabit the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. When she couldn’t provide a number, he criticized her legislative attempt to keep the animal on the endangered species list after it was removed in 2017 by the Trump administration. “Why would you sponsor a bill like that, when science tells us that numbers are well above their recovery target?”

It’s true that some scientists argue that 700 bears in Yellowstone are enough to ensure a healthy population, but Daines didn’t mention that others believe that consigning grizzlies to “islands” like Yellowstone will result in inbreeding and potential extinction, which is why many call for keeping them listed. He also omitted that a federal judge had overturned delisting of the grizzly, a decision that was later upheld by an appeals court judge who called the delisting “the result of political pressure by the states rather than having been based on the best scientific and commercial data.”

In any event, Haaland returned serve deftly. “I imagine, at the time,” she said of her comment, “I was caring about the bears.”

The video of the exchange went viral. Haaland’s response was disarming because it lacked the dull bureaucratic tenor of official Washington. It also revealed the shifting landscape of the conservation movement. The lawsuit to re-list the grizzly was filed by the Santa Fe–based WildEarth Guardians, along with the Sierra Club and other green groups. That’s business as usual. But they were joined by various tribes, including the Standing Rock Sioux, the Crow, and the Northern Cheyenne. In the past decade, tribes and environmentalists have worked together to score a number of unprecedented victories, including the Obama-era designation of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and the withdrawal of the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Both of these wins were undone by President Trump and were still in litigation during Haaland’s confirmation process.)

As I watched Haaland’s hearings, I sometimes felt alarmed watching this woman spend an entire day dodging, coddling, and backing down from a panel of male bullies. But I also began to see her behavior as expert politicking. With the support of 50 Democrats, her confirmation was all but assured, and both her rope-a-doping and the GOP’s scripted outrage were part of the puppet theater that passes for politics these days. All she had to do was not piss anyone off. Daines’s threat to block her nomination quietly vanished; the final Senate tally was 51 to 40, with four Republicans voting to confirm.

Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at protests in Los Angeles
Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at protests in Los Angeles and San Francisco (Aydin Palabiyikoglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty)
Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at protests in San Francisco
(Joel Angel Juarez/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Between Haaland’s confirmation and Biden’s boast of a “whole-of-government approach” to fighting climate change, last year began with chronically glum greenies feeling rays of hope. Biden immediately rejoined the Paris Accords and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline.

But it’s been a mixed bag since then. Haaland quickly recommended that Biden restore the Bears Ears National Monument to the original size designated by Obama in 2017, which Trump had reduced by 85 percent. But Biden didn’t act on this right away. And though he suspended the sale of oil leases on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Justice Department has defended Trump’s approval of a massive Conoco­Phillips drilling plan for the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska.

At the BLM, an agency that oversees almost as much acreage as the Forest Service (part of the Department of Agriculture) and the National Park Service combined, things have looked like the same old, same old. Long disdained as the federal government’s “Beef Lumber Mining” arm by environmentalists who say it kowtows to those industries, the BLM recently reduced fees on coal mines in Wyoming and Colorado. The agency also opened more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration, prompting a lawsuit from Earthjustice and other advocacy groups.

As a congresswoman, Haaland said, “I am wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.” But in her time as interior secretary, the Biden administration has approved more drilling permits per month than President Trump did at the same point during his tenure. In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another part of the Interior, defended the Trump-era removal of gray wolves from the endangered species list.

“The Biden administration has betrayed its duty to protect and recover wolves,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, in a statement. Even so, typically pugnacious environmentalists have mostly treated Haaland with kid gloves, aiming their wrath at Biden himself. Which may make sense: during Haaland’s confirmation hearing, she deflected attacks from Republicans by pointing out, “It is President Biden’s agenda, not my own agenda.”

And as Julian Brave NoiseCat points out: “She entered without a personal relationship with Biden, and she’s in a tight position, where the portfolio she oversees is part of the—I don’t want to say horse trading—but let’s say some things she may have been passionate about get sidelined as a result.”

Haaland’s most consequential action thus far addresses the legacy of Indian boarding schools, a part of history that has long haunted Native people but is little known to most other Americans.

Even as the BLM and Fish and Wildlife seem stalled, Haaland has barreled ahead on issues that concern Native Americans. Last June, the Interior transferred nearly 19,000 acres of the National Bison Range in Montana back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, from which it was taken in 1908. Haaland also transferred 80 acres of federal land in Hawaii to the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust, which would provide homesteads for up to 400 Indigenous families.

“It’s the absolute right thing to do,” says Uahikea Maile, a professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto. “It’s 80 out of a promised 200,000 acres, which is part of the two million usurped from the Hawaiian Kingdom, so it’s a drop in the bucket. But it’s important nonetheless.”

Both transfers were approved by previous Congresses and presidents, and Haaland’s role was largely administrative. Still, she deserves credit: Congress passing a law doesn’t always mean it will be acted on by federal bureaucrats. Just look at the 1964 Wilderness Act, which has been thwarted in Utah for more than half a century. Indeed, the U.S. government’s annexation of the Bison Range was ruled unconstitutional in 1971—but it took 50 years for the feds to return the land.

Haaland’s most consequential action thus far addresses the legacy of Indian boarding schools, a part of history that has long haunted Native people but is little known to most other Americans. Last May, Canadian officials found the bodies of 215 children who were buried at a former Indigenous residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, a discovery that made global news. Weeks later, in an essay for The Washington Post about boarding schools in the U.S., Haaland wrote: “I am a product of these horrific assimilation policies. My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13. Many children like them never made it back home.”

Late last June, Haaland announced the creation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which directs the Interior and BIA to pore over a century’s worth of archives in search of children who entered the U.S. system and were never heard from again. The initiative’s language lays out the aims: “The primary goal of the investigation shall be to identify boarding school facilities and sites; the location of known and possible student burial sites located at or near school facilities; and the identities and Tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations.” As government marching orders go, that couldn’t be clearer.

Family and supporters of Haaland, including House speaker Nancy Pelosi, on Capitol Hill in early 2019
Family and supporters of Haaland, including House speaker Nancy Pelosi, on Capitol Hill in early 2019 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Americans don’t like to think of the United States as a nation that steals children, but then along came Haaland, clearly saying that it is. Without so much as a statement from the president, she launched something with the potential to resemble the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was created in South Africa after apartheid. Perhaps the closest precedent to what she’s hoping to do is President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which eventually mandated reparations payments to more than 80,000 Japanese Americans who were locked up during World War II.

Praise for Haaland’s announcement came swiftly. Nick Tilsen, an Oglala Lakota who works on various Indigenous issues in South Dakota, responded by saying: “We must build a future that Native youth can see themselves in. That future starts with a reckoning of the past.” With Haaland’s leadership, he said, “we’re seeing that solution come to fruition in a significant way.”

Even though Haaland’s initiative appeared to come out of nowhere—boarding schools were not discussed in any of the 2020 presidential debates—it had long been a topic of discussion and activism among Native people. An organization called the National Native Boarding School Healing Coalition was created in 2012 by a consortium of more than 80 groups and individuals to address the “ongoing trauma” of the schools and to follow the lead of Canada, which in 2007 had established a truth and reconciliation commission. (To date, Canadian authorities have found the remains of 1,300 children at several different boarding schools.) In 2020, while Haaland was still in Congress, she introduced a bill to launch such an inquiry, but it died in committee.

Haaland’s candor on this topic contrasts sharply with her equivocations on subjects like climate change. During a Washington Post podcast interview in the summer of 2021, she said, “There are many children who never came home, and no one knows what happened to them.… Everyone deserves to know what happened to their family members.” Asked if she saw the boarding schools as “cultural genocide,” Haaland said, “It was real genocide.”

This statement alone is a huge leap: a Cabinet secretary using the g-word. To put that in context, keep in mind that academics are still debating whether the term genocide applies to the overall treatment of American Indians by the U.S. government during the course of the nation’s history. Some believe it is a stretch to compare the ravages of conquest, disease, and long-term mistreatment here to what happened to Jews and other oppressed minorities under Nazi Germany. Others believe that calling this centuries-long process genocide is apt. In a recent book titled Not a Nation of Immigrants, California historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that government treatment of Indians meets all five criteria laid out after the Holocaust by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Haaland’s boarding-schools initiative focuses in part on the U.S. government’s shameful track record of not honoring treaties. Buried in her directive is this bit of legalese: “The assimilationist policies of the past are contrary to the doctrine of trust responsibility, under which the Federal Government must promote Tribal self-governance and cultural integrity.” This refers to a 1983 Supreme Court ruling in which the court declared that, in the nearly 400 treaty agreements involving the United States and Indian nations that were signed between 1787 and 1871, the government took de facto responsibility for the well-being of tribes. “In order to take our land, they had to sign treaties,” Haaland told the Post. “And in exchange for that land, they said, ‘We’re going to make sure you have healthcare, education, housing … law enforcement.’” As interior secretary, she added, it is her job to make sure we uphold those responsibilities.

Haaland’s inquiry could be hugely significant, forcing the sort of historic reckoning with racism that followed George Floyd’s murder. Or it could only be a well-intended bureaucratic gesture without tangible consequence. In the months since the announcement, the BIA has held a series of online meetings with tribal leaders that were closed to the media and public. Haaland told me that among the topics discussed were “potential repatriation of human remains.” A final written report on the investigation is expected in April 2022.

DAPL protesters in North Dakota
DAPL protesters in North Dakota and Washington, D.C. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
DAPL protesters in Washington, D.C.
(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

The fact that, in 2021, the federal government is even discussing long-shuttered boarding schools and 19th-century treaties speaks to the seismic cultural shift brought about in part by the water protectors at Standing Rock in 2016, who constituted the largest gathering of Native people since a coalition of tribes wiped out Custer and his men at Little Big Horn in 1876. When Obama blocked the pipeline shortly before he left office, it represented the most significant Indian political victory in modern history.

The visibility of Native people has dramatically increased since #NoDAPL, with Haaland’s rise being just one example. In 2019, when Joy Harjo was named poet laureate, she became the first Native American to hold that position. A number of Natives were awarded Pulitzer Prizes in 2021, including novelist Louise Erdrich and poet Natalie Diaz (and editorial cartoonist Marty Two Bulls was named as a finalist). Novelists Tommy Orange and Brandon Hobson were finalists for major book prizes in 2019, David Treuer’s sweeping history The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee was short-listed for the 2020 National Book Award, and essayists Terese Marie Mailhot and Robin Wall Kimmerer had New York Times bestsellers in 2018 and 2019. The popular FX series Reservation Dogs is the first major television show written and directed exclusively by Native people.

For decades, the pressing issues in Indian country—broken treaties, tribal sovereignty, boarding schools—have been ignored in the national discourse. Recently, influenced by the rapid changes in racial awareness and sensitivity that followed the murder of George Floyd, they’ve all moved closer to the center. In the past year, the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians dropped their mascot names after decades of pressure. And in 2020, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in a case called McGirt v. Oklahoma: By a vote of five to four, a court dominated by conservatives ruled that, because Congress had never disestablished five Indian reservations that it created prior to Oklahoma statehood—and though most of that land had long since passed out of Indian hands—the owners of these lands were exempt from certain state laws. In essence, the court affirmed that tribes had sovereignty over their historical domains.

For decades, the pressing issues in Indian country—broken treaties, tribal sovereignty, boarding schools—have been ignored in the national discourse. Recently, they’ve all moved closer to the center.

In South Dakota, President Trump’s July 4, 2020, rally at Mount Rushmore led to protests and arrests of Indigenous activists. Governor Kristi Noem has since sued Haaland for not issuing a 2021 permit to launch fireworks above the cliff carving, which is managed by the Park Service. The Cheyenne River Sioux have joined the suit on the government’s side, maintaining that the Black Hills land where Mount Rushmore sits was stolen from them. There’s little doubt about that: in 1980, the Supreme Court conceded that the Black Hills belong to the Sioux, but instead of ordering the land’s return, it told the U.S. to pay a $105 million settlement. The Sioux have refused the cash and are still holding out to take back their land.

Native Americans have also been flexing political muscle in unprecedented ways. In 2020, when Biden became the first Democrat to win Arizona in a generation, the media largely attributed his win to Latinos in Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs. But Arizona’s approximately 350,000 Native Americans account for 6 percent of the state’s population. They turned out in large numbers for Biden, easily providing his tiny 10,000-vote margin of victory.

It’s difficult to track precise voting patterns of Native people, who make up 2 percent of the nation’s population, since reservations are often split between counties that are home to non-Indians, and because many Indians live off the reservation. Nonetheless, in Wisconsin, another crucial swing state that Biden narrowly won, the 71,000 voting-age American Indians who live there supported him by large majorities. In Minnesota, which Biden won more comfortably than Clinton did in 2016, voting increased nearly 20 percent in precincts with large Native populations. Around the Red Lake Nation in the northern part of the state, 90 percent of voters went for Biden.

Haaland in 2021, after speaking at a rally called Red Road to D.C., held in support of Indigenous rights and sacred places
Haaland in 2021, after speaking at a rally called Red Road to D.C., held in support of Indigenous rights and sacred places (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

Among those who rallied voters was activist Winona LaDuke, who, in the five years since Standing Rock, has been fighting a similar tar-sands pipeline called Line 3, which is planned to cut through North Dakota, northern Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Conventional means of dissent—petitions, public hearings, lawsuits, and appeals to politicians—all failed. The Canadian corporation Enbridge began digging Line 3 in 2020, billing the project as a “replacement” for a 1960s-built line through the same region. However, Level 3 goes through new terrain and expands capacity. To opponents, it’s a project that dodges the environmental-analysis and permit process by calling itself a replacement. As LaDuke’s environmental group, Honor the Earth, put it in a press release, “Building it would be roughly equivalent to building 50 new coal-fired power plants.”

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, whose reservations are adjacent to the route, sued to stop the pipeline. They said that it would violate 19th-century treaty rights that guaranteed the tribes access to off-reservation lands for hunting, fishing, and harvesting wild rice. They lost their case, but activists thought they had a direct ally in the Cabinet. Attorney Tara Zhaabowekwe Houska of the Giniw Collective—a group opposed to the construction of Line 3—had endorsed Haaland when she ran for Congress in 2018, and she later brought a delegation of young leaders to meet Haaland in D.C., where she personally explained how Line 3 would threaten the Native practice of harvesting wild rice. “Talking about the rice brought her to tears,” Houska told me. “She understood.”

In June, Houska, LaDuke, and four other Indigenous women wrote to Haaland asking for support. There was no reply. Activists took to direct action—locking themselves to machinery and forming human roadblocks—and LaDuke wrote that, as of August, more than 700 protestors had been arrested. The police employed “pain compliance” measures like tear gas and rubber bullets. LaDuke was arrested in July. In November, the Biden administration stood by a permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers a year earlier.

“I organized people to vote for Biden,” LaDuke told The New York Times, underscoring her anger. “I drove people to the polls through seas of Trump signs. I drove Indian people to vote who hadn’t voted in 20 years. And what did we get from Joe? A pipeline shoved down our throats.”

Houska was also arrested, and placed in solitary confinement for four days. She posted pictures of bruises on her arms from rubber bullets and pepper balls.

“It’s appalling to see President Biden centering himself as this climate president, as a defender of Indigenous sovereignty, as a respecter of tribal nations, when there are three tribal nations that have been suing against this project since the beginning,” Houska told BreakThrough News. “We are people who have almost been genocided out of existence, and we need people to stand with us.… The petitions aren’t working.”

In September, with California burning again and powerful hurricanes making landfall, Biden announced, “These extreme storms and the climate crisis are here. We need to act.” Five days earlier, 69 people were arrested protesting at the residence of the Minnesota governor, demanding that he pull the Line 3 permits. On September 10, another 23 were arrested for locking themselves together to block roads on the
construction path.

Meanwhile, the UN has taken note. In September, its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination sent a formal letter to the U.S. government, asking for a full accounting of the allegations of Line 3 treaty violations against the Anishinaabe people.

I spoke with LaDuke a few weeks after her arrest. Enbridge had requested permission to pump five billion gallons of water from the wetlands along the pipeline route, ten times more than the original request of 510 million gallons. The state of Minnesota had complied. I asked if she thought Haaland could—or would—take action to help the water protesters.

“I know she knows the right thing to do,” LaDuke told me. “But will the Biden administration let her do the right thing?” Neither Haaland nor Biden gave any comments about Line 3, and on October 1, Enbridge began pumping oil through it. A spokeswoman for the Interior told me that this pipeline is “outside the scope of the Department of Interior.”

Haaland at the White House, listening to President Biden outline an expansion of three national monuments
Haaland at the White House, listening to President Biden outline an expansion of three national monuments (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

On September 30, an op-ed in the Denver Post, written by Native activist Shannon Francis, pressed Haaland to take action on Bears Ears. A week later, Biden announced that he would restore the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, also in Utah. On November 5, Haaland’s former colleagues from New Mexico—senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, along with representative Teresa Leger Fernández—encouraged her to take action to protect the lands surrounding Chaco Canyon’s ancient dwellings and sacred sites, an issue that Native people had long rallied around. Ten days later, she initiated a ban on oil and gas drilling within ten miles of the site for 20 years, a move now under review by the BLM. In November, Haaland commemorated the occupation of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island by Indigenous activists 52 years earlier, one of the founding events of the American Indian Movement of the 1970s. She also banned use of the word squaw in the names of geographic features on public land—which, according to the Mohawk author Katsi Cook, derives from a Mohawk slang term for “vagina,” otisiskwah, and was used as a slur.

A pattern emerges. While Haaland may not be tackling the biggest climate issues, as the left had hoped she would, she is methodically chalking up victories for Native Americans. “I come from a community that has borne the brunt of mineral exploration, with impacts to their health, and the water and resources needed to survive,” Haaland wrote to me, emphasizing her commitment to environmental justice.

Another way of looking at this: she’s ducking big, hard fights for small, easy wins.

“The problem with this type of political compromise,” says Houska, is that “you end up mitigating the sacred, and mitigating whose culture will be eradicated, whose people are going to suffer. But nature is certainly not compromising. Climate does not compromise. Water does not compromise. Human beings are the creatures convincing ourselves compromise is the answer.”

My take is that Haaland isn’t abandoning ecological issues for Indigenous ones; rather, she’s reframing such issues in terms of indigeneity and, in the process, giving the musty environmental movement a much needed moral and strategic spit shine. To be specific, environmentalism won its biggest victories in the 1960s and 1970s, with passage of the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. These laws had real consequences for industry—not just mining and timber, but also peripheral areas like real estate development—causing a backlash. Beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, conservatives successfully defined environmentalism as the province of elite NIMBYs more beholden to redwoods and tortoises than to their former allies: blue-collar union members, who perceived their jobs to have been blocked by regulation, and people of color, whose cities and reservations continued to be degraded while they lacked access to the kinds of pristine vistas pictured on Sierra Club wall calendars. As a result, for the past 40 years, Republicans have defeated most serious legislation aimed at slowing climate change and increasing biodiversity.

As an example, let’s look at the preservation of southern Utah. When the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, the area’s canyons and mesas were obvious choices for designation. Yet even as small sections were slated to be “studied” as wilderness, decades passed without permanent designation. Beginning in the 1980s, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance began to lobby Congress to force the BLM’s hand and declare 5.7 million acres of southern Utah as wilderness. But there was still no action. Finally, in the 2010s, green groups abandoned the wilderness narrative and joined with tribes that had long hoped to preserve sacred sites on their ancestral lands. By repositioning the issue as one of racial justice instead of recreation for (mostly) white people, they got the attention of President Obama, who created Bears Ears in 2016.

A similar thing happened at Standing Rock. The Dakota Access Pipeline was just another garden-variety environmental catastrophe—one with little vocal opposition, until the Lakota vowed to stop it, partly because of the climate effects of oil but mostly as a resistance to centuries of genocide and broken treaties. The pipeline site was not located near any major progressive city or beloved national park. And yet the story of Indian people rising up to protect their land and culture resonated more deeply across the nation—and the globe—than the weary old story lines of, say, rafters saving rivers and surfers protecting beaches. The resistance’s cry that “Water is life” launched a movement, a historic revival of Native unity and activism.

I don’t suggest that Deb Haaland is acting merely with political strategy in mind. I believe that her decisions are deeply rooted in morality. And yet she is also playing a long game for victory. By reframing environmental issues as part of a historic struggle for Indigenous freedom, she reminds us that humans are—now and always—part of nature, as she vastly expands the roster of who is fighting to save the planet.