Native Leaders Tell Tearful New Interior Secretary Deb Haaland She's a 'Formidable Guardian'

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Sean Neumann
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Susan Montoya Bryan/AP/Shutterstock Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

Native American leaders welcomed newly confirmed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland back home to New Mexico on Tuesday, hailing her as a "formidable guardian" for the nation's lands and the interests of its indigenous peoples.

Haaland, 60, became the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position earlier this year. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.

The new interior secretary will be tasked with overseeing American Indian affairs, including how the country's treaties with native people are fulfilled and how public lands are managed.

Haaland was welcomed Tuesday by dozens of community leaders at a meeting outside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, where she was also greeted by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo and a group of state lawmakers.

Her return home was emotional, according to the Associated Press, which described Haaland as wiping away tears after receiving a standing ovation from the group.

Haaland shared details about President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and told them, "Help is on the way."

In all, a reported $20 billion from the proposal would be set aside for Native American governments — helping with COVID-19 relief, boosting health programs and improving both housing and technology on the lands.

The legislation is likely to face near-universal Republican opposition in Congress, given the spending and taxation involved, though Democrats hope to rally their slim majorities to pass it.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP/Shutterstock Nambe Pueblo Gov. Phillip Perez meets with U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

In Haaland's first sit-down interview earlier this month, the new secretary opened up to CBS News about her Cabinet confirmation and the moment Biden, 78, told her he planned to nominate her for the post.

"What I remember saying to him was, 'You don't know what this means to Indian country,' " Haaland told CBS. "It's significant. It's historical. It's meaningful. And I think we're all indebted to him."

RELATED: Deb Haaland Confirmed as Interior Secretary, Becoming First Native American to Hold a Cabinet-Level Position

Recognizing that "a lot of Native Americans have felt powerless" when it comes to the U.S. government, Haaland vowed to tackle climate change. She will also oversee a close review of the fossil fuel industry.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP/Shutterstock Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

The interior secretary recently also announced the creation of the new federal Missing or Murdered Unit, which will focus on investigating cases in the country's Native American community.

CBS News reports that American Indian and Alaska Native women are killed at a 10-times higher rate than other groups.

Haaland described the issue as a "crisis" and told CBS the goal is to "make sure that families can have some answers."