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Opinion: A Native woman’s perspective on why “Auntie Deb” is a great choice to run Interior

Deb Haaland's life is imbued with the lessons of her ancestors who stressed the importance of leading this country toward the sustainable management of its resources and public lands while celebrating its cultural heritage.

Deb Haaland (congressional photo)

I first met Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of the Interior, back in 2006 when we started as new associates at Stetson Law Offices in Albuquerque. I had just moved to New Mexico, and didn’t know a single soul. But lucky for me, that would soon change. 

Deb and I quickly became friends partly due to our similarities — two Native women figuring out our new legal careers — and partly because she was the unofficial head of the New Mexico welcoming committee. 

Deb introduced me to her friends, family, and wonderful daughter, Somah. She invited me to feast days at Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, which were filled with cooking, dancing, and Pueblo people opening their homes and feeding anyone who joined in. She took me to run with her in the Acoma Pueblo’s annual seed run. And, of course, no welcome to the Southwest would be complete without a tutorial on how to make green chile chicken enchiladas.

Gussie Lord

After I left New Mexico for Washington, D.C., I told her I missed the smell of roasting green chile. Deb responded by mailing me 25 pounds of green chile in a burlap sack. 

No wonder everyone called her “Auntie Deb.” 

Now, 15 years later and back in the West,  I’m reliving these beautiful memories and grinning from ear to ear because Auntie Deb, who made history by becoming one of the first Native American women to ever be elected to Congress, is now slated to be the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior. 

Deb’s historic nomination to lead Interior is monumental to Indian Country, Native people, and the environment. When Indigenous leaders met with Interior officials of previous presidential administrations, it too often fell to them to educate the government officials on Indian law, treaty rights, and the ways in which federal policies impact Native people in their day-to-day lives. 

For Deb, she has lived this experience. In New Mexico, she also learned firsthand about issues surrounding rural health care, child hunger, immigration, and agriculture. 

The Department of the Interior is charged with protecting public lands for future generations. The last administration did the exact opposite, allowing private corporations to plunder these lands for their own short-term profits.

Deb understands the complex and longstanding environmental remediation problems that afflict our public lands as a result of decades of deference to extractive industries. In New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and her own Laguna Pueblo are still forced to grapple with the legacy of uranium mining and the terrible radiation issues that arise from it. 

Deb’s experience both in politics and in life, her understanding, selflessness, and warmth are needed at all levels of leadership, particularly at the federal level. 

Her nomination to lead Interior represents an opportunity to help heal the historic wounds that the United States government has inflicted on Native people, by bringing them to the table over important decisions about the lands they have lived on for thousands of years. 

Deb’s life is one imbued with the lessons of her ancestors who stressed the importance of leading this country toward the sustainable management of its resources and public lands while celebrating its incredible cultural heritage. 

Here in Colorado, we are home to 22 million acres of public lands. That’s 22 million reasons for Sens. Hickenlooper and Bennet to fully support Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior. (The Senate Senate Energy Committee advanced her nomination on March 4 and it’s now before the full Senate.) Let’s let the lessons of the past be applied to ensure a better future for us all. 

A huge, heartfelt congratulations to Deb Haaland and her nomination. I’m hopeful that we will be working with you again soon. And as a current Colorado resident, it looks like I may be able to return the favor by sending some green chile to Washington.


Gussie Lord of Denver is managing attorney of tribal partnerships for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, and is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.


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