'Auntie Deb' Haaland plans to get spicy at SXSW
Interior Dept. secretary was originally going to focus on the environment and green energy during her South by Southwest speech. Plans changed.
AUSTIN — When South by Southwest (SXSW) promoters last month initially highlighted U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s planned attendance at the annual — and often wacky — cultural festival, her keynote speech was previewed as a pretty staid affair.
The environment and the role of the Biden administration in supporting green energy and infrastructure efforts were going to be the main thrust of her discussion, according to organizers back in February.
Nothing about the trials and tribulations of her being the first Native American Cabinet secretary — Haaland is a proud citizen of the Laguna Pueblo — during a mega-cultural gathering that celebrates diversity, but has long been criticized for its lack of Indigenous inclusion?
Haaland’s preliminary bio was laid out on the SXSW website in a pretty standard, buttoned-up governmental way, showcasing multiple paragraphs of an esteemed career that led up to her becoming President Joe Biden’s top Indian affairs guru.
At some point, however, people close to her told her that the emphasis on protecting the environment was always going to be welcome at South by Southwest, but she might consider spicing up her presentation for this traditionally progressive festival. (Russia’s war in Ukraine has also made talk about energy issues especially divisive in America today, so she might have wanted to consider that factor, too.)
She took the advice.
Closer to the event, the title of her talk, scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m. CT at the Austin Convention Center, received a much peppier treatment. Now called “Auntie Deb’s Guide to Equity & Inclusion,” the summary presented her in a much more personable — and revolutionary — light:
History has done everything it could to stop her, and yet here she is. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland brings her whole self to the job: her Indigenous and immigrant ancestry, her triumphs and her struggles. She’s an anomaly in the leadership structure, but she argues that voices like hers should be the norm. During Auntie Deb’s Guide to Equity & Inclusion discussion, Secretary Haaland will spotlight her philosophy about why representation matters, how to take it to the next level, and what can be possible when we recognize America’s full history and provide space for all voices to have a seat at the table.
The earlier promotion that her main thrust would be about the environment was completely de-emphasized — eliminated altogether from her discussion summary — although she will still likely feature the administration’s green energy efforts in her planned remarks, organizers say.
The change in focus seemed abrupt, according to SXSW officials, and the altered plans were directed from D.C.
LGBTQ+ issues were also something that Haaland now wanted to cover in depth, organizers were told.
“They got in touch with me really recently,” Charlotte Clymer, a Substack writer who focuses on many trans and political topics, told Indigenous Wire this past weekend. “They needed someone to do a Q&A with her about representation and inclusion, especially on trans rights and issues.”
Clymer said she was excited to talk with Haaland about these matters. (Indigenous Wire was featured on a media-focused SXSW panel alongside Clymer on March 13. More to come on that later.)
Haaland is already well known in the LGBTQ+ community for being a strong ally and supporter.
During the Trump administration, Haaland, then a U.S. Congress member from New Mexico, made waves for making a tearfully impactful statement at a Military Personnel Subcommittee hearing, in which she urged support for transgender military service members.
“It’s not everybody who will make a decision to say, ‘I would die for my country,’ because a lot of people wouldn’t, and I believe if there is one person who isn’t fit to serve — we all know who that is right now,” Haaland said of then-President Donald Trump at the hearing in Feb. 2019. “That person devalues things that our people want to do to make our country better and move it forward. And although I can't apologize for that person, I can tell you that I will do everything in my power to make sure we can bring back some civility and respect to the people who are serving our country.”
Haaland is expected to expand on that point during her talk at SXSW with Clymer, who is a military veteran and a native of Texas.
While serving in Congress and within the Biden administration, Haaland has also been something of a mother figure to U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas and a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation. When elected alongside Haaland in 2018, Davids was the first openly LGBTQ+ Kansan and one of the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress.
Haaland’s only child, Somáh Toya Haaland, is an actor who goes by @coffeequeer on Instagram and uses the pronouns of they/them.
These issues are personal for Haaland, which is one reason some SXSW attendees, like Clymer, are so happy to see her plan to use her perch to go out on a limb in a traditionally conservative state.
It is Somáh’s journey that has most helped Haaland to become such a strong mentor, friend and ally to people like Davids, people close to the secretary say.
“Madam Secretary is a ‘mama bear’ protector of Somáh,” one of Haaland’s close associates told Indigenous Wire. “She would do anything for Somáh. Their relationship is quite lovely, something to behold.”
Haaland is the one who calls Somáh the strong one, however.
“To my fierce child, Somáh on their birthday – I'm so proud of the person you have grown into,” the secretary wrote to her child on Twitter in Feb. 2021. “Time passes too quickly, but I'm so glad I get to be on this journey as your mom.”
Haaland is now trying to make sure that her personal ethos of respect and inclusion takes root throughout the entire Interior Department — and the whole of the federal government, if she could have her way.
Before Haaland’s speech, the agency, which includes Indian affairs, said in a statement that her remarks “follow a series of events and actions taken to underscore the Department’s prioritization of equity and inclusion across the federal government, including establishing the first-ever Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Council; visiting historically significant sites that tell the stories of marginalized communities; and advancing efforts to remove derogatory names from our nation’s public lands and waters.” Indigenous Wire’s recent coverage of the latter topic is here.
Haaland’s philosophy, in short, Interior officials say, is that representation matters. And she wants to express “how to take it to the next level, and what can be possible when we recognize America’s full history and provide space for all voices to have a seat at the table,” according to the department’s statement.
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