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Secretary Deb Haaland Has Made Historic Progress at the Department of the Interior
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Secretary Deb Haaland Has Made Historic Progress at the Department of the Interior

Deb Haaland, the 54th U.S. secretary of the interior, has delivered historic conservation policies and made groundbreaking progress in addressing the treatment of Tribal and Indigenous peoples in the United States.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland greets guests on the National Mall.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland greets guests on the National Mall after speaking during a welcome ceremony for a totem pole carved by the House of Tears carvers of the Lummi Nation on July 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Every week, Secretary Deb Haaland affirms her love for the lands and waters of the United States by sharing a weekly “Camera Roll Sunday” post to her official Instagram account, highlighting photos, videos, and stories of the landscapes and people she interacts with in her role as the 54th U.S. secretary of the interior. Her travels have taken her from Puerto Rico to Alaska to the U.S. territories in the western Pacific to Black and African American heritage sites and many other national parks and public lands in between. Secretary Haaland has also met with local officials, Tribal and Indigenous leaders, and Interior Department staff in her mission to preserve public lands for future generations. In doing so, she has learned the stories of the people who care for and depend on our public lands in an effort to improve how her agency manages public resources for all Americans—especially those who have historically been excluded from the benefits of nature and the stories our public lands tell about the nation’s history.

After nearly four years of progressive leadership—some of which can be seen in her Instagram snapshots—Secretary Haaland has cemented her legacy by elevating the untold stories of American history, making groundbreaking progress to strengthen Tribal and Indigenous communities, and delivering historic conservation policies. Through overseeing record-setting investments, leading new co-stewardship agreements, issuing directives to include Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge, and following through on Tribal and Indigenous consultations, Secretary Haaland has done more than any of her predecessors to support Tribal nations and Indigenous communities’ stewardship of lands and waters.

Telling the untold and hidden history of America

Secretary Haaland has said “Native American history is American history,” and under her leadership, the Department of the Interior has taken great strides in telling the untold and hidden history of Tribal and Indigenous peoples in the United States.

For example, national parks have begun to reexamine the racist beliefs of John Muir, who is often called the “father of the national parks,” and National Park Service (NPS) employees have changed park signage to reflect previously untold histories of racism and genocide. Secretary Haaland even launched a theme study at the NPS collaborating with Tribes across the country to focus on the Indian Reorganization Period (1934–1950) to help broaden the understanding of an important chapter in American history and its context within modern public land management.

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Secretary Haaland also established the Missing & Murdered Unit with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to ensure cross-departmental and interagency work pursuing justice in the epidemic of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. Additionally, she established the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate the history of American Indian boarding schools. And to further seek justice and tell these underrepresented stories, Secretary Haaland launched the “Road to Healing” tour, a years-long effort to travel across the country in order to give Indigenous survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system the opportunity to share their stories and be connected with trauma-informed support.

Finally, Secretary Haaland signed Secretary’s Order 3404 establishing a Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, which reviewed 660 geographic features containing a particularly offensive ethnic, racial, and sexist slur and made recommendations for replacement names. She also signed Secretary’s Order 3405 establishing a Federal Advisory Committee to address other derogatory geographic names across the federal government.

Strengthening Tribal and Indigenous communities

Under Secretary Haaland’s leadership, the Department of the Interior has begun to address its colonial and racist history. In 2021, Secretary Haaland worked with the Biden administration to reinstitute the White House Tribal Nations summits, started by President Bill Clinton and suspended by President Donald Trump. Held annually since, these summits provide an opportunity for the administration and Tribal leaders from the 574 federally recognized Tribes to discuss ways the federal government can invest in and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships as well as to ensure that progress in Indian Country endures for years to come.

In 2023, the Interior Department grew the number of public land co-stewardship agreements with Tribes across the country from 20 to 200, the largest-ever increase in history.

Further steps have been taken to more effectively involve Tribal communities in the management of the lands and waters they have stewarded since time immemorial. In 2023, the Interior Department grew the number of public land co-stewardship agreements with Tribes across the country from 20 to 200, the largest-ever increase in history. Among other opportunities, the department is currently exploring co-stewardship agreements in the newly expanded Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, including for educational efforts to tell a more complete history of the Tribal nations.

Earlier, in 2021, Secretary Haaland approved a new Constitution for the Cherokee Nation that explicitly ensures the protection of the political rights and citizenship of all Cherokee citizens. This includes giving full citizen rights to Cherokee Freedmen, the former slaves of members of what have been termed the “Five Civilized Tribes”—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations—subjected to various litigation efforts dating back to the Treaty of 1866.

Secretary Haaland made history as the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary

And in 2022, the Interior Department announced that for the first time in the agency’s history, it will require formal consultation with the Native Hawaiian community on matters of the rights and sovereignty of Native Hawaiians. These new policies and procedures will further affirm and honor the important relationship between the U.S. and the Native Hawaiian community.

Secretary Haaland’s work to advance equity and justice at the Interior Department

Secretary Haaland made history as the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary and has instituted some glass-shattering changes within the staffing at the Interior Department. For example, she made historic appointments of Charles F. Sams III, the first Tribal citizen to serve as the director of national parks, and Dr. Sean MacDuff, the first Native superintendent of the Mariana Trench monument. For many years, the Department of the Interior has recognized the lack of ethnic diversity among its staff. But under Secretary Haaland’s leadership, the agency has taken action. It has launched initiatives to increase hiring of women in NPS law enforcement positions, and in 2022, it launched its “Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA).” Specifically, the DEIA Strategic Plan outlines ongoing and future plans to root the agency’s work in equity and justice, address barriers to access to the outdoors, and increase equal employment opportunities throughout U.S. bureaus and offices.

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Delivering the largest conservation successes in American history

Secretary Haaland has also played a leading role in driving the “America the Beautiful” initiative, the first-ever national conservation goal committed to improving access to nature for all Americans, fighting climate change, and protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

In 2023 alone, the Department of the Interior protected more than 12.5 million acres of public lands as national monuments, mineral withdrawals, wildlife refuges, and more—safeguarding nearly the same amount of lands in 2023 as during the administration’s first two years. Combined, all these areas would be about the size of Virginia. Notably, Secretary Haaland has also led actions to protect sacred spaces from industrial harm, including by withdrawing the public lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future mining and leasing claims—which she advocated for as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and delivered as secretary—and by supporting designation of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona.

In 2023 alone, the Department of the Interior protected more than 12.5 million acres of public lands.

Secretary Haaland has also overseen a long-overdue overhaul of the management of 250 million acres of public lands, turning the page on decades of mismanagement and conflict over Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Anchored by the Public Lands Rule, a suite of recently completed actions will ensure public lands are wisely stewarded for future generations while remedying major problems from oil and gas development, accelerating responsible clean energy development, and supporting outdoor recreation and other community needs. Additionally, the BLM recently secured protections for more than 13 million acres in the Western Arctic—an area especially vulnerable to expanded oil and gas development and the most visible impacts of climate change.

Secretary Haaland has made historic investments in Indian Country, channeling more conservation investments to Tribal communities than any other interior secretary. This includes $580 million toward Indian water rights settlements to continue to safeguard clean water resources for Tribal communities using funding from President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Reclamation Water Settlements Fund, a $135 million commitment to support relocation of Tribal communities affected by climate change, and $15 million for the Indian Youth Service Corps to support programs that develop the next generation of conservation and climate stewards.

The Biden-Harris administration has made additional record-setting investments in Tribal nations and Native communities. Among the list of groundbreaking investments from the Interior Department, the new Grasslands Keystone Initiative provides $5 million toward Tribally led conservation initiatives to restore bison populations and grassland ecosystems in Tribal communities. This funding supports the InterTribal Buffalo Council’s herd development and apprenticeship program, which builds capacity for Tribes to manage and expand their bison herds with a focus on ecosystem restoration through bison conservation.

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Conclusion

No other Cabinet secretary in American history has done as much as Secretary Haaland to conserve our nation’s land and waters and to enable Tribal and Indigenous communities to lead that work. Secretary Haaland has left an indelible mark on the Department of the Interior. Her unwavering commitment to address environmental justice, combat climate change, and prioritize the well-being of Indigenous communities has transformed the entire agency’s approach to internal and external forward progress.

Through her leadership, Secretary Haaland has not only broken barriers; she has also opened doors of opportunity for future generations at all levels. As she continues to uphold the government’s treaty obligations to the 574 federally recognized Tribes, uplift untold stories, and conserve lands for future generations, she simultaneously persists in cementing her aspirational legacy far beyond her time in office.

No other Cabinet secretary in American history has done as much as Secretary Haaland to conserve our nation’s land and waters and to enable Tribal and Indigenous communities to lead that work.

The authors would like to thank Drew McConville, Nicole Gentile, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Steve Bonitatibus, and the local and national conservation leaders who are building impactful and equitable conservation solutions every day.

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Authors

Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow

Sam Zeno

Policy Analyst, Conservation Policy

Joel Moffett

(Nez Perce), Director of Environmental and Special Projects, Native Americans in Philanthropy

Team

Conservation Policy

We work to protect our lands, waters, ocean, and wildlife to address the linked climate and biodiversity crises. This work helps to ensure that all people can access and benefit from nature and that conservation and climate investments build a resilient, just, and inclusive economy.

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