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Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk: Deb Haaland’s nomination represents a moment of healing for Indigenous people and the land

This Feb. 21, 2021, photo shows a billboard in Billings, Montana, displays support for New Mexico U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, who has been nominated to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. Native Americans will be watching her confirmation hearing closely on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to lead the agency that has broad oversight over tribal affairs and energy development. (AP Photo/Matt Brown)

As an Indigenous woman from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, I’ve learned early on how women’s voices, like mine, are critical to the world. Our voices matter in order to bring about healing and change. I always think about the struggles that I have gone through to get there, from grade school to graduating high school, and now as a graduate student, and my life journey in between.

One of those challenges is being bused to school in the bordertown of Cortez, Colorado, from my home at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain — an effort by the state to assimilate our community and promote the adoption of mainstream American ways. My voice this time, however, comes during a rebirth, with spring welcoming us and Women’s History Month underway.

My voice also speaks to this amazing moment when an Indigenous woman, Rep. Debra Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is nominated to the position of Interior Secretary. Even though she was grilled during the committee hearings, she’s a tough girl and knows that her experience is one of truth and not borrowed.

As Indigenous women, we have teachings, values and many stories that make our societies who they are. Haaland represents a beautiful truth and promise of real change to make a better future for all. In our history, nothing’s ever been easy. There are no fast tracks to success for an Indigenous woman.

I know this from being the former co-chair to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, where female leadership helped bring the tribal leaders together in a spirit of cohesion and played a role engaging the Obama Administration on the need to designate Bears Ears as a national monument through the concept of healing. Even to this day, healing is still relevant for us as humans and non-humans to remain vigilant during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

During my time as co-chair, a voice like mine was important to include in the conversation with the other tribal leaders, my brothers, and added some balance to the scales of equity, justice and diversity. Now, Haaland has the opportunity to bring her perspective to issues that will impact Indigenous peoples and their futures, including the restoration of Bears Ears after this 60-day review by the Biden-Harris administration.

Once she is confirmed, it will be easier and more relatable to engage with her because we need not spend so much time re-educating her about who we are as Indigenous people, what our beliefs are, and why, for our survival as a people, we need sacred landscapes like Bears Ears protected. She will intuitively understand the importance of this place to our people, as opposed to many years of tribal consultation that has often felt superficial and relegated to a procedural check-off.

While our communities still continue to heal from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is hope in the nomination of Haaland and the promise from President Biden to restore Bears Ears – the ancestral home to my Ute Mountain Ute people, as well as to the Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo, Diné and Ute Indian Tribe, and other Native communities.

As Ute people, we are of the land and historically we moved with the seasons. We were always moving, and still do, and we continue to rely on the land for food and other resources to maintain balance with the natural world. Our ceremonies, like the Bear Dance and Sun Dance, are intricately related to land protection and the resilience of our communities. Such cultural connections anchor who we are as a people and need to be told over and over for our Indigenous youth so they find strength in their identity and connect with the land as their ancestors have.

These stories need to continue within the advocacy of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which asks for the Biden-Harris Administration to not delay, but restore Bears Ears to the 1.9 million acre boundaries as reflected in our original proposal. After this year of extreme hardship and loss, we need to focus on healing ourselves and the places around us. To build back in a meaningful way, we must follow the values of reciprocity and healing — the tenets of female leadership that I know Haaland brings to the table.

Like many communities, we continually got hit hard from the waves of COVID-19. Now, as a COVID-19 survivor, I’m also seeing the silver lining of this reality. As a society, we are re-centering around family and mealtimes while we are in quarantine or isolation. We are sharing food and feeding our spirits by being together, and that is the hope we have to get through these hard times.

The impact of COVID-19 not only revealed vulnerabilities of the 21st century, but also areas that we need to strengthen as Native societies and in our local communities. It is really up to us to evaluate and adapt to make ourselves stronger. Let’s take the first step toward healing together.

Confirm Deb Haaland to be Secretary of the Interior, and amplify the Indigenous narrative of land management by restoring Bears Ears now.

(Photo by Tim Peterson) Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and former co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

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