Second. Deb Haaland is a ‘voice’ for the natives

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Crystal Echo Hawk is a registered member of Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma and the founder of IllumiNative, a a nonprofit working to raise the profile of Indigenous nations – and “challenge the negative narrative about them.” Below, Echo Hawk on the need to “reset the relationship” between the U.S. government and the tribes – and why she thinks Secretary Deb Haaland, who made history last week as the first Indigenous woman to the head of the Ministry of the Interior is the one who directs the charge.


My grandfather, Ernest Echohawk, was taken from his family at a young age and placed in residential school, where he was mistreated and beaten for speaking his own language. He passed away in 2005 and at the end of his life had so much sadness over what was stolen from him. In his later years, I saw him struggle to remember our language. It was clear that the pain of what he had been through had never left him.

During his lifetime, my grandfather sat on our tribal council and dealt a lot with the Office of Indian Affairs which was so paternalistic and in many ways humiliating to our people. I can only imagine how moved he would be if he were still alive to see the Native American First Secretary to the Cabinet, let alone the fact that he is a woman.

Home Secretary Deb Haaland’s confirmation is transformational for Indigenous people. Finally, a leader who can help Americans understand that we are human beings, not cartoons or mascots. We are no longer a people who no longer exist. We are here.

My elders who are still alive never thought that this could be possible, and certainly not in their lifetime. I just wish my grandfather was here to witness this historic moment too.

Echo Hawk (far right) with daughter Wicanhpi EchoHawk (far left) and Secretary Haaland (center).

Courtesy Crystal Echo Hawk

Growing up, I saw first-hand how hard Indigenous women work in the leadership roles they occupy in our communities. But looking outward into society, we have always been invisible. It doesn’t matter which tribe we come from. Too often in this country, indigenous people, and especially indigenous women, are seen as insignificant. We operate in a space in which nearly 80 percent of Americans don’t know much about us. A significant portion of that percentage isn’t even sure we exist.

Our invisibility is our greatest threat.

When Secretary Haaland was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, she helped us dream. She has become a voice for Indigenous people in a country that cannot conceive of Indigenous people in the context of the 21st century. She has spoken out on a range of issues, not only important to her New Mexico constituents, but she also spoke about key issues such as the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women, which has been largely ignored in that country. until recently. We are talking about thousands of indigenous women and girls who have been killed or gone missing, with no justice in sight.

Two years later, as COVID-19 spread across the United States, there was virtually no coverage of the impact of the virus on Native American tribes. At that point, our invisibility became a matter of life and death. Secretary Haaland, who was a congressman at the time, was one of the few voices to plead at the national level for the federal government to come up with a response to support Indigenous communities.

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When I heard that she was vying for the post of Home Secretary, I knew how profound that moment could be. The Home Office is the agency responsible for managing the federal government’s “fiduciary responsibility” to tribes and Native Americans.

[Editor’s note: The U.S. government has imposed itself as the “trustee” for various tribal lands. This “trust responsibility,” as it’s called, holds the federal government accountable for protecting “tribal and individual Indian lands, assets, resources, and treaty and similarly recognized rights,” according to the Department of the Interior.]

It is important to understand the harm the agency has historically caused. Pull back the curtains and you will discover so many dark stories of corruption and mismanagement of resources owned by tribes and individual Native Americans. One of Home Secretary Haaland’s predecessors gave a speech about the Native American extermination policy – and it wasn’t even that long ago.

To have an indigenous leader in that role and to have the opportunity to begin to restore the relationship between the federal government and the tribes, which has been characterized by genocide, violence, eviction and corruption — well, that’s revolutionary. .

Crystal echo hawk's girl takes a selfie with deb haaland
Echo Hawk and his daughter, Wicanhpi Winyan, last year.

Courtesy Crystal Echo Hawk

IllumiNative helped organize a virtual vigil on Senate vote night to confirm Secretary Haaland. Over 21,000 viewers listened to it. It was beautiful, people from all over Indian country gathered as the final votes arrived. My daughter, Wicanhpi Winyan, texted me and said, “Mom, I want you to know I’m watching! For her – someone who was relentlessly intimidated in school for her looks and for having a traditional Dakota name – seeing an Indigenous woman achieve this level of leadership was so empowering.

The implications of this moment are beyond what we can even imagine, especially for future generations, and especially for Indigenous women.

Will Secretary Haaland solve all problems overnight? No, because it’s so much bigger than that. But it is an important start.

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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