ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Native American leaders told U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland they see her as a “formidable guardian” and steward of their interests Tuesday during the pueblo woman’s first official trip to her home state, an emotional visit that focused on pandemic relief and underscored the significance of her confirmation.
Dozens of tribal leaders gathered in the courtyard of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque for a discussion with Haaland, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo and members of the state's congressional delegation.
Tribal leaders told the group their prayers were answered when Haaland was chosen to head the Interior Department, which has broad authority over Native Americans. Haaland is the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary.
She wiped tears from her eyes during her introduction and received a standing ovation.
“Help is on the way,” she told the group — a refrain that Joe Biden's administration has been echoing from coast to coast during the many visits White House officials and others have been making to tout the federal government's latest COVID-19 relief package.
Haaland reiterated that every federal agency must recognize its responsibilities to tribes. She also acknowledged the devastating effects of the pandemic on New Mexico's pueblos and said the Interior Department also lost employees to COVID-19.
She placed her hand over her heart as she listened to stories from pueblo leaders and took notes.
“I thank all of you for doing such an amazing job and getting your communities here in New Mexico vaccinated,” Haaland said. “I know how difficult it has been to keep our people safe and healthy during this terrible pandemic.”
More broadly, Haaland pressed for addressing climate change and moving toward a clean energy economy.
Tribal governors told Haaland that protecting Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico is a top priority, saying they are frustrated that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management hasn't done more to stem oil and gas development.
Tribes' expectations of Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, are wide-ranging, rooted in the federal government's past failures to uphold responsibilities etched in treaties and other acts. While many are hopeful her appointment will open the door to new possibilities, they acknowledge it will take time to address the systemic problems that have plagued their communities for generations.
Haaland is well-versed in the struggles of Indian Country when it comes to things like a lack of basic infrastructure, education achievement gaps, disproportionate health conditions and protecting sacred sites.
In New Mexico, Native Americans make up more than 10% of the population.
Haaland has pushed to ensure tribes are consulted regularly and meaningfully on federal policies and projects that affect them. But some Native Americans see her leadership as a chance to ask for more, to move from consultation to consent and to put more land in the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements.
Zuni Gov. Val Panteah Sr. said he's encouraged that Biden's administration has promised to listen to tribes on how to spend federal virus relief funding and on protecting places like Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. Haaland is expected to visit the monument later this week.
“This is something that we needed for so long, and it gives us an opportunity to share and recommend and tell these departments that are so vital to our communities what our needs are," he said.
Democrats have billed the money set aside for Native American communities in the $1.9 trillion federal recovery package as the country’s largest, single investment in Indian Country.
About $20 billion will go to tribal governments to help them keep combating the virus and to stabilize community safety-net programs.
More than $2.3 billion is specifically dedicated to COVID-19 testing, tracing and vaccination efforts, while $600 million will go toward health facilities construction and sanitation programs.
Another $420 million will boost mental and behavioral health programs, and $140 million will be tapped for tribal technology improvements and tele-health access.
The package also includes money for housing projects, the expansion of broadband access and other infrastructure and educational programs.
Tribal governors also met recently with U.S. Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, when he toured a vaccination clinic at Santo Domingo Pueblo in northern New Mexico. They said the pandemic has highlighted the chronic underfunding of the federal Indian Health Service, which provides primary care to millions of Native Americans.
The All Pueblo Council of Governors is made up of tribal leaders from 20 New Mexico pueblos and an Indigenous community near El Paso, Texas.
The group advocates on behalf of Native American issues, ranging from educational equity within public schools to limiting oil and gas development in areas considered sacred.