“Seize your newfound power, your influence, your hearts, and your expertise and put it to good use,” United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland urged graduating Harvard Law School students on Wednesday. “Good use that will make you proud to be a lawyer, because we can’t build the world we deserve without each of you.”

Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, delivered her remarks as the law school’s 2024 Class Day speaker on May 22. In her talk, Haaland shared words of wisdom gleaned from her exceptional life and career and urged graduates to use the skills they had gained at Harvard Law to work for meaningful change.

“The knowledge and street smarts you have acquired at this historic institution are meant for one thing and one thing alone: to help move our communities and our world forward, because that is what this era of our country requires of all of us,” she said.

Haaland, a 35th generation New Mexican and member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Joe Biden in 2020. Before that, she ran for lieutenant governor of New Mexico in 2014 and represented New Mexico’s 1st district in U.S. Congress from 2019-2021.

But Haaland said that she does not view her accomplishments as hers alone, pointing to the efforts and sacrifices made by countless generations of Indigenous people who preceded her. “I never forget that it’s because of their enduring commitment to survival against so many odds, that I stand before you today.”

Lived experience is important, Haaland said. She pressed students to think about how their own backgrounds could inspire them to make change, such as when, in 2005, she championed a bill to give in-state university tuition to members of New Mexico’s tribes, regardless of where they live.

“Unfortunately, the new residency designation that I worked so hard to enact was not retroactive,” she joked. “So, I am still paying off my student loans.”

Although Haaland herself had been unable to benefit from the legislation, she said that what mattered was bringing her perspective – and that of her people — to the “decision-making table.” “It is right and just for you to speak up … to ensure their voice is heard through you.”

“Always remember to work hard and never let fear stop you, no matter what you pursue.”

Deb Haaland

Taking such risks can be daunting, Haaland acknowledged. But she added that as law students, many in the audience had already had to push past anxiety and doubts to succeed. “Always remember to work hard and never let fear stop you, no matter what you pursue,” she said.

It is a lesson that Haaland took to heart while running for Congress in 2018, she recalled. Many had doubted her electability as a Native woman, she said. “But anything worth having is worth working hard for,” she said. “And my hard work proved a lot of people wrong. Yours will too.”

Haaland cautioned graduates against thinking they had to do it all on their own.

“No one, at any point in time, has accomplished anything alone,” she said, pointing to her more than 60,000 colleagues at the Department of the Interior. “Lean into the beauty of community.”

Haaland then recounted some of her team’s key accomplishments over the last four years, including permitting a historic number of onshore and offshore clean energy projects, and, in collaboration with Native tribes, establishing protections for the sagebrush steppe ecosystem in the American West, working toward the reintroduction of salmon into the Upper Columbia River, and designating several new national monuments.

“Some of the proudest moments during my tenure have come when President Biden has taken decisive action to protect the lands, waters, and wildlife that we depend on every day, and importantly, to do so hand in hand with tribal nations that have stewarded these lands since time immemorial,” she said.

Under her leadership, the department also launched an initiative to investigate the federal residential schools that once removed Native children from their families.

“I have traveled across the country to bear witness to the many survivors of the boarding school era,” she said. “We have so much more to do to reconcile this painful chapter in our nation’s history, but our progress is real.”

Haaland emphasized that lawyers — including Harvard Law alumni Natalie Landreth ’01 and Laura Bloomer ’19, and Robert Anderson, who served as the Oneida Indian Nation Visiting Professor of Law for more than a decade — were behind many of her department’s wins. “Each of you has more power than you realize,” she said. “I know for a fact you’re all powerful, because Harvard Law graduates and former faculty have helped lead our momentous efforts at the department since day one.”

Haaland concluded by imploring the fresh graduates to use their newfound powers for good. Be grateful for your gifts and pass them on to others, she said, and strive to “ensure future generations can live the prosperous lives they deserve.”

“Today, pat yourselves on the back and celebrate this wonderful accomplishment,” Haaland said. “Tomorrow, there is work to be done.”

Celebrating the Class of 2024!

View full coverage from the festivities of the 2024 Class Day and Commencement Ceremonies at Harvard Law School.