On Wednesday, the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States convened to discuss the destruction of sacred sites along the border. Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, had come to Washington to speak about the dynamite blasts that have torn through the land to make way for the border wall. How construction crews are now mixing concrete with water drawn from springs that fed a nation for thousands of years. “It’s hard to see the blasting that you showed on the video today,” Norris said, taking a moment to steady himself. “Because I know in my heart what our elders have told us. That area is home to our ancestors. And … blasting and doing what we saw today totally disturbed and totally forever damaged our people.”
But before Norris could have his audience with Congress, Republican Representative Paul Gosar, an Arizona conservative who remains one of the most outspoken proponents of the wall, had his own story to tell. About “national security”: “The most important task of the federal government is to keep its citizens safe,” Gosar opined. “Those who promote open borders here are doing a favor to the drug cartels, terrorists, and human traffickers.” And what he believed really counts as the desecration of burial grounds and sacred land: “I’m wondering, do you think illegal border crossers bathing, drinking, and defecating in Quitobaquito Springs and other springs will have an environmental impact on the resources and species at these critically important desert habitats?”
Again, this was the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States—a body ostensibly meant to represent the interests of the Indigenous nations and citizens within America—using its institutional weight to diminish the very thing it was created to represent. It was nearly an hour into the hearing before the subcommittee’s lone Native member had an opportunity to speak. Representative Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo citizen elected from New Mexico’s 1st District, has been the champion of Indian Country as it relates to environmental and cultural issues since she and Representative Sharice Davids, of Kansas, were elected as the first Native women in Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.
After directly addressing Norris, who described what it meant to watch as his ancestral lands were destroyed, Haaland turned her attention to Scott Cameron, an assistant secretary in the Interior. There, Haaland offered the most succinct rejection of the administration and Gosar’s reasoning for the project. “A sacred site that’s been blasted can never be made whole again,” she said. “I want you to understand that. And you know why? Because ancestors put those things in the ground with care and love and tradition and prayers. Those can never be regained again. I don’t expect you to understand that. You can’t equate sacred sites and burial grounds with trash.”
This is familiar work for Haaland, who, since she assumed office, has spent far too much of her time in such hearings fending off the vitriol and disregard of her conservative colleagues. Last December, she was forced to step forward when Republican Representative Tom McClintock questioned whether Native jurors could be impartial in sexual violence cases involving Native victims and non-Native perpetrators and why he would have to adhere to the laws of a sovereign nation if he sexually assaulted a tribal casino employee. Earlier this month, at a House Armed Forces Committee hearing, Haaland had to explain to Navy officials the basics of tribal consultation. “It’s just concerning to me that the Navy could craft their end-product proposal, having it essentially ready to come up here, and then call a few conversations with tribal leaders consultation,” Haaland, the daughter of two military parents, said. “That’s not consultation. It’s not just a box you can check.”
Haaland is not completely alone in defending Native peoples and their land from a conservative federal government that, now as before, does not respect tribal sovereignty or the basic rights of Native people. Representatives Ruben Gallego and Raúl Grijalva remain two of the most steadfast non-Native defenders of Indian Country in either chamber of Congress, and even Republicans like Cherokee Nation citizen Markwayne Mullin and Chickasaw citizen Tom Cole and non-Native Paul Cook have made strides to defend Indian Country.
But because Haaland is a rare Native voice in Congress, when she speaks of sacred sites, she is not speaking about something she has learned about but something she has known. It is not abstract or foreign or academic; it is something she can connect to and defend from a place of deep understanding. But too often she is the only progressive Native voice with power in a room.
There are two quotes I think about when I watch Haaland repeatedly go toe-to-toe with her white male Republican cohorts in the House. The first comes from Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, when a lawyer played by Ray Liotta tries to impress upon his client why it’s necessary that they strike a hard initial tone in their negotiations: “If we start from a place of reasonable, and they start from a place of crazy, when we settle, we’ll be somewhere between reasonable and crazy.” The second comes from an interview I did last year with Harvard’s first tenured professor of Native studies, when I was working on a piece about Native representation in the media:
“Native issues requires more than 1.5 percent proportional representation,” Phil Deloria, Harvard’s first tenured Native studies professor, said in an interview. “That means there’s got to be more than two famous writers at a time; there has to be more than two congresswomen.”
The more one watches Haaland hold her own and carve out space as a role model and champion of Indian Country in Congress, the more this rings true. In order to turn back this country’s centuries-long desire for Native land and resources, there cannot be only one Deb Haaland. There must be many. Wednesday’s hearing was just the latest example of why that is.