If, as widely expected, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland survives her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday and is sworn in as secretary of the interior, she will make history as the first Native American ever to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
But representation is only half the battle. From day one, Haaland will also be expected to address a festering backlog of problems left behind by predecessors who lacked her perspective as a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, one of America’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
Among the most daunting: how to finally help shield indigenous people from the hundreds of inactive yet still toxic uranium mines that have been scarring their lands and poisoning them for decades.
The numbers are tragic. After the invention of atomic weapons in 1945 and the subsequent development of nuclear power plants, mining companies dug more than 4,000 uranium mines across the Western U.S.
Though other tribes were affected — including the Hopi, the Arapaho, the Southern Cheyenne, the Spokane and Haaland’s own Laguna Pueblo — roughly 1,000 of these claims were located on Navajo Nation, which encompasses 27,000 square miles where Arizona, Utah and New Mexico meet.