Haaland embraces 'indigenous knowledge' in confronting historic climate change impacts

The nation's first Native American Cabinet member faces a slate of challenges.

September 22, 2021, 5:03 AM

A relentless drought and wildfire season in America's West and a tense standoff over federal leases for oil and gas drilling have been early tests for the Biden administration's climate policy and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the job and first indigenous member of a White House Cabinet.

"I can't speak for every tribe or even my tribe, but I can make sure that tribal leaders have a seat at the table," Haaland said in an interview with ABC News Live Prime. "Certainly, in this time of climate change bearing down upon us, that indigenous knowledge about our natural world will be extremely valuable and important to all of us."

"Indian tribes have been on this continent for millennia, for tens of thousands of years," she added. "They know how to take care of the land … that's knowledge that's been passed down for generations and generations."

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks with ABC News at the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C.
ABC News

Haaland, a former U.S. representative from New Mexico and one of the first two native women to serve in Congress, is leaning in on her experience as a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe to confront the historic impacts of climate change on communities nationwide.

She leads the agency which manages more than 480 million acres of public lands and a government leasing program that has allowed private energy businesses to tap into valuable natural resources situated on federal property.

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and governors about the nation's wildfires, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, June 30, 2021.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Early in his term, President Joe Biden ordered a moratorium of new leases -- with an eye toward discontinuing the program altogether -- in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. The move has made Haaland, who's now conducting a formal review of the program, a target of criticism from the energy industry and Republican lawmakers from states dependent on oil and gas production.

"You said that if you had it your way, and I quote, you'd stop oil and gas leasing on public lands. As secretary, you will get to have it your way," Sen. Steve Daines of Montana charged during Haaland's confirmation hearing earlier this year. The Republican later voted against her nomination.

"It's a pause on just new leases, not existing, valid leases," Haaland responded, explaining the moratorium. Last month, a federal court ordered the Interior Department to resume the leasing program while legal challenges continue.

"It has the potential to cost jobs here in the United States, good-paying energy jobs," Frank Macchiarola, an energy industry lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute told ABC News. "It has the potential to increase costs for consumers."

Most U.S. oil and gas production occurs on private land, according to the Congressional Research Service. Roughly 9% of American output came from federal lands in 2019, the agency said.

Chevron signage is displayed in front of a horizontal drilling rig on federal land in Lea County, N.M., Sept. 10, 2020.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Haaland is also helping to lead the federal government's response to historic drought and wildfires fueled by climate change.

Ninety percent of the American West is experiencing "severe" or "exceptional" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The conditions have ravaged the agricultural industry in nearly a dozen states and forced several to enact mandatory water cutbacks for residents. California, Arizona and New Mexico have also been battling some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in years.

“Drought doesn't just impact one community. It affects all of us, from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and Indian tribes," Haaland said on a visit to Denver in July. "We all have a role to use water wisely, manage our resources with every community in mind, work collaboratively and respect each other during this challenging time.”

The Interior Department has deployed millions of dollars in federal relief funds and sped recruitment of government firefighters. Last month, Haaland announced a pay raise for those on the front lines.

"We need to think about, you know, does that come down to management? Is that something that we need to reinvestigate how some of these forested lands are being managed? And is there a better way to prepare those forested lands for the next fire season?" said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, who hopes the worsening drought will lead to a greater review of how federal lands are managed and can best combat drought.

Haaland is also overseeing a multi-billion dollar renovation plan for the National Park System; a renewed campaign to improve access to the parks for communities of color; and steps to address longstanding protests by some tribal groups demanding greater control over federal parklands.

A firefighter lays hose around the Foothills Visitor Center while battling the KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia National Park, Calif., Sept. 14, 2021.
Noah Berger/AP

"You have to understand that for there to be any justice or repair on these lands, it has to go back to the roots. And for indigenous peoples on these lands -- it goes back to land theft," said Krystal Two Bulls, director of the Landback movement, which calls for all federal lands to be returned to their original tribes. "This entire so-called country was built on top of -- stolen land by stolen people."

Two Bulls and other Landback organizers argue that tribes are best suited to care for these lands given their deep history and knowledge of the natural world.

"Whoever's currently in charge is not protecting these lands, indigenous peoples, that's not what we're about, we're about that relationship to the land," Two Bulls told ABC News. "Native peoples knew how to manage and work with the fire, as a natural element, we knew how to do that."

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks at an event to draw attention and action to sacred sites and Indigenous rights in the U.S., in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2021.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Haaland has said she wants to use that knowledge in her tenure at the Interior Department and to make clear that "those voices are heard."

"Well, we absolutely are listening," she said.

During official travel, she regularly pays homage to her roots; she was known to wear traditional moccasins in the House and donned ceremonial tribal garb for her swearing in with Vice President Kamala Harris. She even addressed senators in the native language of the Laguna Pueblo during her confirmation hearing in the spring.

Debra Haaland testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource, at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 24, 2021, in Washington.
Leigh Vogel/Pool via Getty Images, FILE

She also brings a legacy of service to her country; her father served as a Marine for three decades and her mother served in the Navy. Haaland said that she has always had a connection with the outdoors, and recalls spending time outside often with her father, who was an avid fisherman.

"I worked hard, and you know I followed a path, but I also stand on the shoulders of … so many tribal leaders who have come before me," Haaland said. "And so I feel very confident that if it weren't for those people that I wouldn't have had that path to follow."

Deb Haaland, U.S. secretary of the interior, center, sworn in during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., March 18, 2021.
Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Haaland was confirmed as secretary of the interior by a 51-40 vote in the Senate in March. Once sworn in, she took over the reins at an agency that less than two centuries earlier had a mission to "civilize or exterminate" indigenous people and led the oppressive relocation of Native Americans.

She says that history gave her no hesitation.

"This is our ancestral homeland, this is Native Americans', this is our ancestral homeland. We're not going anywhere," Haaland said. "This is land we love and care about."

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