Deb Haaland Condemns Rick Santorum’s Anti-Indigenous Comments

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, responded to comments from former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) late last month in which the CNN commentator preposterously suggested white European colonizers “birthed a nation from nothing.”

In an interview with HuffPost on Tuesday, Secretary Haaland called Santorum’s remarks “unfortunate” and suggested that part of the problem behind the former senator’s fundamentally false statements might stem from his lack of education on the subject of Native people’s histories.

The comments from Santorum resulted in criticism of his complete erasure of Indigenous peoples — and of the fact that genocide was a core component of the “birth” of the United States.

Speaking on April 23 before a gathering of Young America’s Foundation, an organization for young conservatives, Santorum pushed the fiction that white colonizers started out with nothing to form what would eventually become the United States.

“We birthed a nation from nothing. Yes, there were Native Americans, but there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” Santorum said.

Santorum’s comments attempted to erase the entire existence of Indigenous civilizations, as well as the fact that white colonizers have waged a centuries-long (and ongoing) genocide, murdering many millions of people and engaging in brutally violent assimilation tactics, separating families and endeavoring to demolish cultures. His comments also ignored the continued existence — and vast, incalculable contributions — of Indigenous communities, and the long history of Indigenous resistance in the face of oppression.

Since making those comments, Santorum has faced calls from several groups for him to be fired from his role as a political commentator for CNNincluding from IllumiNative, a nonprofit focused on challenging negative narratives about Native Americans, which described Santorum’s comments as dangerous for “fueling white supremacy by erasing the history of Native peoples.”

CNN should not give Rick Santorum a national platform where he can spew this type of ignorance and bigotry against communities of color on air,” IllumiNative’s founder Crystal Echo Hawk said. “Allowing him to spread racism and white supremacy to the American public is reckless and irresponsible.”

Santorum tried to backpedal on his comments, but failed to adequately address the problems that existed in his original statement last month. Speaking on CNN earlier this week, Santorum said:

I misspoke. What I was talking about is, as you can see from the runup, I was talking about the founding of our country. I had given a long talk about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the ideas behind those, and that I was saying we sort of created that anew, if you will. And I was not trying to dismiss Native Americans.

CNN host Don Lemon, reacting to Santorum’s comments later that same evening, criticized the former senator’s attempt to explain away the controversy.

“I cannot believe the first words out of his mouth weren’t, ‘I’m sorry,'” Lemon said, adding, “Did he actually think it was a good idea for him to come on television and try to whitewash the whitewash that he whitewashed?”

“Perhaps we haven’t done a good job about educating Americans about history, because Native American history is American history,” noted Secretary Haaland on Tuesday. “When we think about the influence that Native Americans have had on the forming of the United States, right? The U.S. Constitution is based on the Iroquois Confederacy. Native Americans from some tribes here in this country have some of the oldest democracies in the world.”

“I mean, I could probably suggest a few pieces of reading for the senator that would, you know, help him to branch out on his knowledge of American history,” the Interior secretary added.

Santorum’s attempts to backpedal on his comments earlier this week did not halt calls for him to be fired. Fawn Sharp, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, which had previously called for Santorum to lose his job at CNN, reiterated her disappointment with the network, and her organization continued to call for Santorum to be terminated from his role.

“I was optimistic he would own it, he would recognize it and he would apologize, but he did none of those things,” Sharp said.