Over the years I have taken a particular interest in Native American culture and history. During my years with the Maine Council of Churches my work with the Wabanaki ("People of the Dawnland”) tribes in Maine was one of the more rewarding aspects of my job. I have tried to continue a practice of deep reading into American tribal history* and to stay somewhat current** with their emerging political influence (Standing Rock, of course, being the most notable example) after centuries of the most deplorable genocidal and exploitational treatment imaginable.
So it was with the utmost of joy when I learned this week that Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) of New Mexico has been named to be the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. It was like the arrival of a sudden bright ray of light on a long awaited opportunity for tribal representation at the highest level of the federal government as a member of the Cabinet. Her leadership now offers the possibility for some level of reparations for the theft of tribal land and sovereignty and an opportunity to correct the neglect of tribal health, safety and welfare since the arrival of the Europeans. No doubt the historical drama of granting tribal sovereignty (or, from a tribal perspective, fighting for the right to claim what is already theirs) and reckoning with our nation’s history of broken treaties will take many more years of struggle and likely continued resistance. From what I have seen and read about Rep. Haaland, I have deep confidence she is up to the task.
In her response to Biden naming her to Interior she made a point of saying she’ll “be fierce for all of us” My first impression to her use of the word "fierce" seemed unusual and maybe a bit aggressive. But then I realized the word “fierce” was particularly notable for me at the time because “Fierce Love” was also the motto of the recent annual FCNL meeting. Since then I have been thinking about what it means to be “fierce,” and I want to share a bit of what I learned.
We usually have negative responses to the idea of fierceness as in the fierceness and aggression of a tiger or the destructiveness of a fierce storm. But the word also has a more positive definition: “showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity" as in “fierce love.” And even more interesting, there is an additional, formal sub-definition of “ fierce" referring specifically to being a “fierce woman.” According to a commentary in readypublication.com ,”Being fierce means standing your ground when the going gets tough. A woman who is fierce is always looking to better herself and the world around her. ... When you're a fierce woman, you respect yourself - and your limits." So it seems that this is how Rep. Haaland sees herself to be a “fierce woman,” and her claim to be fierce "for all of us" seems to be just right. And it also seems appropriate to believe that a specific quality for all women includes an inherent, “she bear" fierceness.
So the word “fierce” in this context is exactly the right word for both Rep. Haaland and the Quaker approach to lobbying the federal government. For Rep. Haaland especially the word hints of the noble “fierceness” of the Indian warrior that likely has a particular meaning for her tribal supporters. But more importantly it expresses the assertiveness and tenacity she will need to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel companies, vested land interests, and whatever racism and elements of misogyny she will also likely face.
And I would like to suggest that all of us would do well to assume a mantle, an attitude, of “fierceness” as we must now assert a “heartfelt and powerful intensity” in dealing with a post-Trump, lingering Covid, racist, wealth disparate, and climate crisis world. We’re going to need a good portion of “fierce love” and fierce tenacity in these coming months and years. I will be inspired by Rep. Haaland’s commitment to be “fierce for all of us” as she stands strong and noble in her protection of her indigenous brothers and sisters and the land and its creatures that are especially honored in the tribal traditions. I will also be inspired by the FCNL commitment to “Fierce Love” as our guide for advocacy for peace and justice legislation at the federal, state and local level.
This is a strange Solstice, Advent, Christmas, New Year theme, I suppose. But these commemorations also all represent a turning, the anticipation of new light, new birth and the continuing process of change and challenge that defines life itself. However you celebrate the holidays, may they be an opportunity for you, too, to realize a turning in your own life and the lives of those you love, and for all of us, as we offer a “fierce" struggle for recovery from this past year and consolidate and adapt all that this difficult time has taught us.
*I am currently reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the 2015 American Book Award winner which I highly recommend.
**I follow current Indian Country news with a free subscription to https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/