Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Cooks to Share Her Indigenous Heritage

The first Native American to serve in the Cabinet talked to Food & Wine about her lifelong passion for cooking, from making green chicken posole for fellow members of Congress to selling jars of Hatch chile salsa in law school.

Portrait of Deb Halaand and photo of hatch chiles
Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior / Adobe Stock

U.S. Interior secretary Deb Haaland spends far more time in Washington, DC nowadays than her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. But the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet, citizen of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, and lifelong cook is always stocked with a few tastes of home: red chile powder, corn tortillas and frozen roasted green chiles. These essential New Mexican ingredients have kept Haaland rooted to her heritage throughout her historic rise from military kid to small-business owner to Democratic congresswoman and senior Biden Administration official charged with the care of the nation's 1.9 million Native Americans and millions of acres of federal land and water, much of which was once seized from Indigenous people.

Fresh blue-corn tortillas taste like Haaland's childhood in Mesita, one of six Laguna Pueblo villages west of Albuquerque where she'd spend summers with her maternal grandparents. Red chile infused the warming beef posole her mom dutifully prepared no matter where in the U.S. they were stationed. Roasted Hatch chiles were blitzed into the salsa Haaland jarred and sold to earn a living when her daughter was a toddler, then later diced into big batches of chicken posole stew that she made for fellow law students and congressional colleagues.

"It's these values that are the foundation for the way that I approach my job and the basis of why I believe public policy should benefit everyone and not just a few powerful people," said the self-described 35th-generation New Mexican, who traces her Indigenous ancestry to the 1200s. "These values are why I work every day to center the voices of the unrepresented and underrepresented in the work we do and the policies we create."

Haaland was still in Congress when I first reached out to her in January. I was spending two months with my sister in Las Cruces, four hours south of Albuquerque; like the rest of the state, we watched Haaland's confirmation hearings play out with rapt attention.

"A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior," she tweeted before the vote. By then the phrase had already been a rallying cry for New Mexican voters who elected her to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018-one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress. Amid the litany of achievements crammed onto Haaland's Twitter profile appeared the pithy descriptor, "gourmet cook."

"I love to cook!" she said, when I later asked about it. She shared her recipe for the same green chile chicken posole she's doled out to her communities for decades-a spin on her mom's version that carries similar meaning. "In Pueblo culture, we celebrate our patron saint by hosting feast days where people open up their homes and share food with anyone who comes by to eat," she said.

Haaland was born in Winslow, Arizona, in 1960. Her mother, a Native woman, was in the Navy, and her father, a Norwegian American from Minnesota, served in the Marine Corps. The family moved every few years -- from Quantico, Virginia to Oceanside, California -- before finally settling in Albuquerque when Haaland was a teenager. By the time she graduated from high school, she'd attended 13 different public schools.

"Regardless of where we were in the country, my mom ran a Pueblo household and that included the food we ate," she said. That meant traditional dishes like sturdy green chile stews, pots of beans, and loaves of fluffy Pueblo oven bread, an enriched loaf with crusty exterior and tender crumb that's traditionally baked in outdoor ovens. Yet many of Haaland's most powerful taste memories came through the months spent with her grandparents, which instilled deep respect for the earth and its resources.

"In Mesita, we lived without running water," she said. "I would irrigate cornfields with my grandpa. I spent hours watching my grandma baking bread, and cooking beans and chile through the kitchen window. She prepared food from scratch -- processing the corn and vegetables my grandpa grew in his field."

The Laguna Pueblo is a tribe of just over eight thousand people living on half a million acres of shrubby desert dotted with mesas and sloping sandstone cliffs in west-central New Mexico. It comprises refugees from the Hopi, Acoma, Zuni, San Felipe, Zia and Sandia tribes who fled from the north during the Spanish Reconquest in 1699, according to the nonprofit Partnership with Native Americans. While Haaland was in college at the University of New Mexico (UNM), she recorded some of her grandma's personal history, including how she and Haaland's grandfather were among the tens of thousands of Native children taken from their families and forced into boarding schools, "in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people," Haaland wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

Within days of graduating, in 1994, Haaland gave birth to her only daughter, Somah. When Somah was two, Haaland started a small business selling homemade salsa and named it Pueblo Salsa. Daughter in tow, she drove around the state hawking her product; at times, the two relied on food stamps and friends and family for housing.

"It was a way to have flexible working hours when my child was little -- I couldn't afford childcare and needed to make a living," she said. "There were times when I would go to the grocery store and had to put items back because I didn't have enough on my EBT card to cover the cost. But, I will say that I had an extensive support system of family and friends who were always willing to lend a hand, even if they were also struggling."

She shuttered the salsa business in 2006, the same year she graduated with a degree in Indian Law from UNM and a reputation for whipping up triple pots of chicken posole for every gathering and Native American Law Student Association fundraiser.

Haaland began her political career as a volunteer mobilizing Native American communities to vote and was named Democratic chair for the state of New Mexico in 2015. She ran for the seat representing New Mexico's First District on a progressive platform, highlighting her working-class background. "Congress has never had a voice like mine," she told supporters on the campaign trail, while I watched on YouTube from my hometown of Chicago. That message helped carry her through her confirmation as Interior secretary two years later, where she'd assume control of a department with a documented history of abusing and neglecting Native Americans.

It was an unseasonably hot and dry June day in Chicago when I made Haaland's posole; like much of New Mexico, northeastern Illinois was gripped by drought. I wondered how many bowls Haaland shared of this nourishing stewed chicken with earthy aromas of roasty, tangy chiles and woodsy herbs, punctuated by hominy's buttery chew. As I blistered store-bought tortillas over the stove, I thought of Haaland and Somah making them, as they often do when they're together-maintaining a thread uniting centuries, which Haaland first picked up as a child in her grandparents' cornfield.

"In the most ancient home sites, the food that my ancestors grew and prepared can be found," she said. "I am proud that those growing and cooking methods have been passed down to me and now my child."

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